Defaced II, 2019
Artificial imagination, print, 100 x 100 cm. Copyright Grégory Chatonsky.
Grégory Chatonsky (*1971, Paris) is a French-Canadian artist whose work uses interactive installations, intelligent devices, photography and sculpture. He holds a Master in philosophy of art (Sorbonne, Paris) and multimedia (National School of Fine Arts, Paris), a doctorate in art (University of Québec), and is an artist-researcher at the Ecole Normale Supérieure, Paris.
In 1994, he co-founded Incident.net, one of the first netart collectives. His artistic research focuses on the aesthetics of failure and accident, the deconstruction of narrative, and the emergence of the digital in sensitive perception and the building of collective memory. He will pursue it through numerous exhibitions (Palais de Tokyo, Beaubourg, MOCA Tapei, Jeu de Paume) and residencies (Villa Kujoyama in Kyoto, Colab in Auckland, Taluen in Amazonia), using AI and stocks of millions of images, to let the machine produce artistic works capable of rivalling those of a human.
Amongst his subjects of reference are AI, “disnovation”, flows, and extinction.
What possible impact can art have on social transformation? Can artists stimulate personal and social change? In your opinion, what is the responsibility of contemporary art and what is the role of artists in society?
This is an ambitious question, which is, in fact, quite classic in the modernist debates of the last century. At a time when the need for global change seems more urgent than ever, and our failure to achieve, it leaves us in a state of deadly impotence, artists are increasingly being asked to fill this gap.
This demand seems to me to be disproportionate and leads to over-excited statements (“we have to”) and repetitive disillusionment (“that’s all it is”). I’m seeing more and more institutional projects on art, Anthropocene and inequalities that seem to set ideological goals for art. If environmental and social issues are indeed convergent, do such projects reduce the works to mere illustrative means? In other words, we might know that we need to achieve a turning point, a new alliance, a new policy, and the works of art would serve to imagine these new possibilities in advance and to disengage us from the world we are still in.
I believe that art production cannot be a stimulating illustration of predefined social goals. Rather, such instrumentalization constitutes the mental structure that today brings us the problem: to consider all things (art as nature) as things that do not have an end in themselves and that must be oriented towards an anthropological purpose, towards a utility, towards a desirable future. It is precisely this type of causality, which subjects everything to the will, whose responsibility is another name, that must be broken if we want works of art to leave room for an incalculable and unpredictable future. The paradox is that it suspends the role, function, responsibility and finality of artistic production that it can operate on the logistics of a world where everything is considered a chain of causes and effects, the first of which must be fixed by the human will and the second of which must be of benefit to our species.
What role could narrative play in times of great crisis and historical upheaval?
In light of the disasters and crises that characterize our world today, can we be bold enough to hope and imagine a better future?
Here again the question asked and the very concept of a better future seems to me problematic. It assumes that we need new great stories to rebuild belief in the future and that art should be “feel good”.
However, I believe that we must start from the suspension of the times to come, which characterises the feeling of our times, rather than trying to close this loophole in advance. The future is no longer given to us, it might not even happen… It is this possibility that we need to open up even more.
This is why I would be critical of the notion of narration because it always assumes that someone has the authority to be the narrator and to reconstruct a consistency, a vision, an insight for listeners. Inspired by experimental literature, I would like to imagine a fiction without narration (editor’s note. FsN in its French syntax), without a narrator, who would no longer be indebted to the desperate search for meaning. Suspension of finalities there again.
If we live in a logistics of the world where everything is considered to be useful to another, forming a network of causal commissions until it returns to its own beneficial use, part of artistic production can try to break the chains of this determinism and make room for what comes.
What might a dialogue between art and other disciplines look like to promote innovation and shape the future? What other disciplines would you like to get in touch with? What new ideas and approaches might emerge?
Interdisciplinary dialogue does not seem to me to be a matter of innovation, a concept that I criticised when I created the notion of disnovation in 2011 precisely because in my opinion the future is not shaped. It is not clay in our hands.
Innovation has only succeeded in producing incremental gadgets because it only thinks of time as the emanation of its will… The idea that we are masters of our future and that we can create it according to our desires, our goals and our will is precisely the world from which we must somehow get out. It is a will of power that is heading towards its own destruction, which we can call nihilism, the period in which we are indeed in.
Interdisciplinarity, to use this word and without entering into the terminological debates already known, can, here again, deconstruct the instrumentalisation of the world and disorient our knowledge to open us to an unpredictable future. Thus, I have been working for several years with recursive neural networks, or artificial intelligence that I prefer to call artificial imagination, not to find solutions, to imagine a desirable future or whatever, but to show that if for 15 years we have been accumulating our memories on the Web like never before, it is because this data feeds software that can generate similar and different data. This automation of resemblance, or mimesis, allows us to imagine that the Web and AI are our pyramids, monuments to our predicted demise. There is nothing more instrumental, desirable or wishful, but a speculative proposal that deals with the present, with what we are living and which is the very horizon of our time.
What do you wish for a better future? Assuming that we dare to hope and that a better world can be built on the ruins of the old ones – what would you want it to look like?
I work since many years on the issue of ruins. Here again, the idea that a world that dies means a world that will be born, that destruction is creation (Schumpeter), that ruins give rise to new possibilities, is a conception historically rooted in the West that is one of the sources of our current situation: destroying nature in order to bring it back to life, neoliberalism does nothing else. There would be so much to say about such a deep affect that mixes the will to power, destruction, fascination with beautiful ruins, the feeling that the world is going to end… Perhaps it is not possible to get out of this imagination, but I would at least like our imagination to become aware of these historical over-determinations, that our images, our fictions because they are without narrative and disoriented, should be reflexive and know how to reckon with their conditions of possibility. Images coiled up in their historicity.
The presupposition that we have to go towards the best and towards maximisation, that we have to keep hope because it is this mental horizon that would allow us to slow down our extinction, seems to me to be a strategy that is part of the problem.
It is often said that the extraordinary power of art lies in always courageously and fearlessly seeking renewal and always starting afresh on a blank sheet of paper. Do you personally use particular strategies, rituals or work techniques to find your way into a new work and start a new project from scratch?
I’m trying to do precisely the opposite. When I do an artistic project, it’s as if history condenses, transforms and crystallises in it. Before carrying it out, I document myself, I try to see if other projects exist, what are their historical filiations, to build up a library of Babel, texts and images around me. I try to make a project that is not a project.
All I have to do is reconstruct the entire logistical and infrastructural network that it took to produce a blank sheet of paper to understand how unrealistic this metaphor is. Art as pure tabula rasa associated with a heroic personification seems to me to be a conception that has historically been accompanied by a fascination with ruins in the West. Heroism, the idea of courage and even sacrifice, is also the companion of great narratives.
You don’t start from scratch. The only meaning it could have is precisely the extinction of the human species to which this nihilistic will to power leads us. I would like to start from the historical sedimentations to unfold threads that were present but have not yet emerged. The artistic imagination would then consist of everything that has not been, everything that is not, everything that will not be.
The interview was conducted in May 2020
Translation from French : Cécile Nebbot