Philippe Parreno: The creature is ready to eat
An interview with French artist Philippe Parreno on the occasion of his first extensive solo show in Germany.
Philippe Parreno is exhibiting time at Berlin’s Gropius Bau. Nothing is static or constant, except for a few drawings that appear every now and then as if they’re from another world. Otherwise, everything is on the move: blinds open and close; sound can be heard and is then silenced; films and fireflies appear and disappear; fish fly in the air; and in a huge water basin, the vibration of sounds create waves like immaterial water lilies. Parreno’s individual objects are part of a great choreography in which everything is connected to each other, yet the visitor does not understand who or what is in control. But it is also certain that nothing is accidental. The artist’s high-tech script activates the spaces and will gradually give control to a yeast colony growing in a bioreactor.
Even though the yeasts’ mutations are unpredictable – a creature that develops its own life – the colony will echo what it has absorbed from the exhibition. At no two moments will the show ever be the same; visitors experience it in its ongoing transformation and the yeasts will perhaps be the only ones to remember every moment. The show is not easily accessible, it is not an effective magic trick, the creature does not invite you to dance. It will take time to explore the organism that is growing in the middle of Berlin, it will take many loops – physically and mentally – to begin to understand its variations and possibilities, for this creature does not speak in a linear language. Everything happens simultaneously, to be absorbed as a whole – a temporary gift which Parreno offers us and with which we should spend as much time as possible while it’s here.
In the past you had fantastic exhibition titles, like “Anywhen”, which immediately opens a space for imagination, but for this exhibition you decided against a title. Why?
Since yesterday I’ve called it “Philippe Parreno, Summer 2018, Gropius Bau". I was struggling with the idea of a title to name the exhibition. I remember when people talked about the Palais de Tokyo show, or even when we talked about the Palais de Tokyo, we never said “Anywhere, Anywhere Out of the World”. You’d say, “I saw the Palais de Tokyo show.” So it's kind of strange to give titles to things that struggle to be recognised as an object. What matters is the space and the time. It's a summer show and it happens at Gropius Bau. Why not have the truth as the title? Maybe as the next step my name should disappear too.
You could give the bioreactor a name.
Or the protocol, it's a formula, a creature that is taking control.
Let's speak about the bioreactor. It is said that the bioreactor and the yeasts are controlling the exhibition.
Right now, at the beginning of the exhibition, they don’t control anything; it's me controlling it. But slowly we're going to establish correspondences between the events in the exhibition and the yeasts. The exhibition will become their world, so to speak. It’s a bit like a stomach: the yeasts are fed and after a while they start to be attentive to their world and to anticipate what’s going to happen next, when they will be asked to switch their mode of metabolism. That's the moment when a sort of a memory is produced and I unleash their presence. Then the yeasts are in control from time to time, and eventually, at the end, they will have full control of the exhibition. But I start with my own chain of thoughts, which then starts to be modified by events that the bioreactor will trigger.
What kind of events?
For example, when the yeasts know that after the film runs they get some sugar, it becomes a clock. They remember the specific time when they receive sugar, when they start to ferment, or when they get glycerol and start to breathe. We monitor and record their oxygen production, because this is an input for us. When you stop their world, they keep repeating it and after some generations they start to mutate or remember.
"When Berlin radio stations are playing, this tuning is played by the bioreactor. The yeasts take the sound and put it in various places in the exhibition, according to their own will."
Are you really giving up the complete control to the yeast colony?
No, but the yeasts are controlling the lights and a few elements which are outside of the timeline. For example, when Berlin radio stations are playing, this tuning is played by the bioreactor. The yeasts take the sound and put it in various places in the exhibition, according to their own will. I also don't control the speed of the movement of the “water lilies”. The things that I don't control are controlled by them directly.
This whole process is imperceptible. The belief in the “other” and the non-human that controls our world is currently very popular and seems to feed a desire that the world is more than we can understand…
Yeah, there are a lot of beliefs, but that's ideology and I try to always be careful with that. I’m using tools. The bioreactor – which I've been using for four years now – is a creature that is produced by a contingency, but the creature is also a hyper-object. It is a set of organs without the body. If you remove the architecture you have two eyes, so to speak, with the cinemas; the two ears of the pianos; skin attentive to the sun and heat; and cyberskin, which is attentive to all of the sounds heard within the space. Everything is digested by the bioreactor, so it becomes a sort of proto-creature. I'm more and more interested in the creature itself, how it can exist and its protocol of existence.
And you have a lot feedback loops in the exhibition, similar works appear and react to each other.
Yeah, I am interested in this form of delirium when you start to establish a lot of synchronicities between things.
How has the hardware, the building, shaped the exhibition? Or how have you shaped Gropius Bau?
Gropius Bau, the space I was asked to occupy, is producing a loop. I talk about non-periodic cycles because the exhibition space is already a cycle. You start from one place and then go all around. Each time I came here the doors were always closed, you could never go from one room to another. In order to walk around, you don't want to go up and down stairs in the Lichthof and be almost barricaded by handrails all around. This stops people. So I lifted everything up to the same level so that you can go in and do your cycles. That's my reading of the space, like you read the palm of the hand.
You also give the windows some attention.
Orange Bay, which is installed on the windows of the west side of the galleries, is like a sunset. The work refers to a dystopian novel by Gabriel Tarde, in which the sun dies and earth is exposed to permanent sunset, which causes humanity to go underground. Also, when the sun hits the windows, the temperature changes and the museum increases the air conditioning. Then the balloons start to go up or down. Now they're up because the windows are heating up. I'm interested in those movements that you often don't pay attention to.
The exhibition is so ephemeral. Sound, light, films, and fireflies appear and disappear, and some spaces are just empty.
There are only three rooms really empty. They create a moment, like in cinema, when you have a shot that shows nothing other than your own attention to what's going to happen next. It establishes a point where you're a bit on the side, rather than in front of things all the time.
"There's always a vernissage, a moment when things open and things close, and that's a problem for me"
But suddenly there are drawings, which interrupt the fluent movement through the spaces. Why have you included the drawings?
The drawings are from Continuously Habitable Zones (C.H.Z.) (2011). In the beginning I wanted to present the film C.H.Z., but then I decided to present everything but the film. It's too black and dark, more winter than summer. Also, C.H.Z. is about this hypothesis of a black photosynthesis, but the exhibition is much more about light, photons, and photosensitivity. It’s the same with Marilyn – the film is not there, but the wallpaper that was designed for Marilyn is. It's about degrees of existence. A film can exist, but the drawings that led to the film are as important to me as the film, in a way. And the film also produced a garden, so what's more important? Is it the film, the garden, or the drawings that prepared everything? For me it’s all about intensities, different forms of intensities.
Have you ever considered focusing on the duration of an exhibition?
Oh yes, I would love to make it longer. I would like to have a show that morphs into something else, that starts with me and my proposal and then something else takes control. I don’t have to be the author at the end. I also want to do something where there's no clear beginning and end. There's always a vernissage, a moment when things open and things close, and that's a problem for me. I did a show with Liam Gillick called “To the Moon via the Beach”, where there was no clear beginning and no clear ending, so visitors just saw people doing stuff and had no idea if they were performing or producing something. I really like that kind of thing.
In the book Conversation, which you did with Adam Thirlwell for your exhibition at the Serralves Museum, you said that bacteria had replaced the algorithm but that you also wanted to move away from that. What did you envision when you said that, because the yeasts are still here...
The yeasts are now going to mutate. It’s supposed to have already mutated because we’ve produced so many generations of yeast over the period of two and a half years, so now we're going to do the DNA sequencing and seeing what happens next with the creature. The memory of old events has literally produced a new creature, a new form of yeast. But maybe I'll make a cake and eat it and that will be the end of it. No more yeast.
And then you will be in the bioreactor.
Exactly, I'll be the one digesting it.
JOANNA KAMM is a writer and curator based in Berlin.