Pierre Huyghe’s exhibition at Serpentine in London is at once hermetically closed and wide open: hermetically open.
UUmwelt, as the exhibition is called, consists of a small number of elements: four screens displaying flickering visual streams, loudspeakers emitting a glitchy soundtrack, two wall paintings, a colony of flies. Moving through the four, almost deserted rooms feels somber, as if everything in them were turning its back on you. At the same time, the works demand our attention: the frenetically flashing films capture our gazes, the humming soundtrack cannot be avoided, flies crawl over the surfaces of the screens. The rooms set up a system of contradictions.
Huyghe’s works have often been associated with Nicolas Bourriaud’s idea of a relational art. In the exhibition at Serpentine, Huyghe seems preoccupied with an even older, even more untimely model: the open work, theorized by Umberto Eco in the early 1960s.
What was the open work? To start, a more complex concept than is usually admitted. The open work was an artwork which invited the spectator to create the work together with the artist, or which was characterized by formal “openness” to the extent that each experience of the work created a new arrangement of elements and relations. The contemporary artist, wrote Eco, “introduces forms of organized disorder into a system to increase its capacity to convey information.”
It was an artwork, in other words, whose combination of parts did not coalesce into a coherent image, into identity or continuity. “The open work,” Eco explained, “assumes the task of giving us an image of discontinuity.” “The discontinuity of phenomena” – the fragmentation, excess, and contradiction of contemporary reality – “has called into question the possibility of a unified, definitive image of our universe; art suggests a way for us to see the world in which we live, and, by seeing it, to accept it and integrate it into our sensibility.”
To represent our world, in its complexity and fragmentation, in order to make it possible for us to understand our location in it, and by extension our ability to act in and upon it – this was the task of the open work, according to Eco. In that regard, his concept belongs to the tradition of critical montage and mapping, rather than that of “social sculpture,” where the invitation to participate should transform the passivity of the isolated spectator into collective activity. The open work is a montage that establishes a dynamic system together with its spectator.
The works in Huyghe’s UUmwelt are based on techniques that, at first glance, appear culled directly from the art historical repertoire of the open work, but updated to contemporary – or even future – technological conditions. The production process of the four films is participation-based and, judging by the cryptic information leaflet, extremely convoluted. Huyghe first “selected” what is called (without further specification) a “set of elementary components.” “Young animals, children, and intelligent machines” have been invited to “play with” and “communicate” these “components,” “but only using their minds.”
Meanwhile, their “brain activity” has in some way been recorded, and these “thoughts or mental images” have then been “reconstructed” by a “deep neural network.” The images displayed to the spectators, the leaflet explains, are “thoughts which have been intercepted on their path between human and machine. They are then modified by the circumstances under which they are exhibited.” Accompanying these interactively sourced brain-images is the whirring, crackling soundtrack, which, the leaflet clarifies, “originates from recordings of brainwaves.”
Of course, as long as they remain unexplained, the different scientisms offered here – component, record, reconstruct, etc. – say nothing about the works’ logic. Nor is anything from the “scientific” production process visible or legible in the works themselves. That Huyghe’s films are produced in collaboration with a laboratory at Kyoto University means as much for our understanding of them as the fact that the technology for Serpentine’s LED screens was once developed in the R&D labs of a Japanese tech corporation. It is not unthinkable – it would even be somewhat comforting – that there is in all this a certain irony on the part of Huyghe, a light sarcasm with regard to the contemporary artworld’s fondness for quasi-scientific rhetoric.
In any case, the result of the complicated production process is a series of visual flows where movement and stasis are paradoxically merged. What we see in the films is how a figure in the foreground is subjected to various permutations, in a stroboscopic tempo. The figure itself remains relatively isomorphic, a constant whose contours are displaced, dissolved, and restored at a flickering pace, while the nuance, resolution, and composition of the background shift at the same rate. One of the figures vaguely resembles an insect, another a human face, yet another some sort of vehicle. The originals appear to be stills, and the whole thing vaguely resembles digital morphing effects from the 90s, but accelerated beyond control.
In other words, there is unity in these image flows, but no identity. There is recognition, you perceive forms, features, facial expressions – but the shapes of the figures are erased at the same moment as they appear. And the open stream of visual permutations is supposed to be responsive, dependent upon the presence and movements of spectators in the exhibition space – but there is nothing that suggests how this influence works, that allows us to decipher cause and effect. This is Huyghe’s version of the open work: it begs us to become co-creators, but is indifferent to our attention; it reacts to our presence and our actions, but there is no comprehensible causality.
The open work functions “almost as a sort of transcendental scheme,” wrote Eco. It assumes a “mediating role between the abstract categories of science and the living matter of our sensibility,” and thereby allows us to “comprehend new aspects of the world.” Huyghe’s emphasis on the opaque, the self-absorbed, the indifferent – highly charged art historical concepts and motifs, as Benjamin Thorel notes in his excellent reading of Huyghe’s exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in 2013-14 – suggests that this mediating role must be rethought in order to fill any kind of cognitive or critical function today, under the condition of participatory-media apocalypse.
The two wall paintings in the exhibition also evoke the tradition of the open work. They are paintings made not by adding color, but by subtracting it. The smaller of the two belongs to a series Huyghe has been working on since 1999, Timekeeper: small compositions of differently colored concentric circles, surrounded by the white of the gallery walls. Huyghe has ground his way down through the layers of wall paint, so that the earlier color schemes of the exhibition space are exposed, like the strata of a geological cross-section.
The larger wall painting is based on the same technique, but the sander has here been allowed to play freely across the wall surface, with broad, almost expressive gestures. Exposed, the thin layers of color become visible as erratic lines and fields across the dimly lit wall. They form a sprawling network, a pattern of color strokes and transitions that recall a map, a chart, geological or ecological phenomena seen in bird’s-eye view: rock layers, oil spills, fault lines.
Perhaps the most apparent art historical reference for these inverted wall paintings are the New Realist Décollagists: Raymond Hains and Jacques Villeglé. Hains and Villeglé’s poster works from the 1950s onwards – the golden age of the open work – consisted of cutouts from large billboards in Paris, in which different layers of posters had been torn off, so that new compositions appeared: asemantic patterns of fragmented letters and images; unexpected combinations of Colgate smiles and stern political slogans; abstract constellations of jagged surfaces and color fields. Performing an excavation of the present, Hains and Villeglé’s affiches déchirés endowed the billboards with memory, cured them from their cyclical amnesia, at the same time as they showed us the city as an anonymous, creative collective.
In Huyghe’s de-murals – to coin a new term – it is the exhibition as a special type of ephemeral cultural form that is endowed with memory and collective authorship. When the overpainted colors on the gallery walls appear through the paintings’ shallow holes and sweeping grinds, the continuously reset present of event culture – the normal temporality of the exhibition – is rejected. Huyghe suggests that an exhibition must not always be replaced by another – as if history could never begin – but that all exhibitions could be read as a palimpsest, as a cumulative meta-artwork produced by a collective of artists, craftsmen, curators, and assistants.
Techniques of this kind are not foreign to Huyghe: his large retrospective at Centre Pompidou a couple of years ago was installed in the ruins of the preceding exhibition, a retrospective of then-recently deceased Mike Kelley. The operation felt surprisingly radical: to walk around in a recycled, temporary exhibition architecture, where worn-out information labels alongside Huyghe’s films and cryptic figures communicated irrelevant data about artworks long since shipped away, was to break a contract, an unreflected agreement regarding the nature of the exhibition as form and practice.
This elementary critical operation, which reminds us of the repressed material conditions of a certain kind of cultural production, is also central to Huyghe’s version of the open work. What remains unthought in Eco’s concept of the open work as a “transcendental scheme,” that mediates between “the discontinuity of phenomena” and our own sensibility, is precisely the irreducible materiality of mediation. Mediation is always a question of technology and materiality, which are, in turn, always questions of relations of production and social relations – and consequently of contradiction and antagonism. All ideals of mediation’s transparency contain an element of mystification of those conditions. Huyghe’s system of inertias and contradictions disengages the open work from all such ideals. His hermetically open works create a space of indifferent resistance, which is a space of freedom, or at least as close as it gets.