Man as Interface

With the exhibition Les Immatériaux, Jean-François Lyotard addressed an increasing intimacy between consciousnesses and things. A new book shows the continued relevance of his endeavour.

Jean-François Lyotard during the opening of Les Immatériaux, 26 March 1985 (from left to right: Claude Pompidou, Thierry Chaput, Jean-François Lyotard, Jack Lang.)
Jean-François Lyotard during the opening of Les Immatériaux, 26 March 1985 (from left to right: Claude Pompidou, Thierry Chaput, Jean-François Lyotard, Jack Lang).

The circulation of qualifiers that are intended to define the epoch in which we live (“post-conceptual”, “post-Internet”, “post-human”, “anthropocenic”, or the quite simple, but no less charged term “contemporary”) is as intense as ever. The French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard (1924–98) is more or less absent from these discussions. This is perhaps not very surprising given that most will probably associate Lyotard with the idea of the postmodern, which in turn is thought of as something we have now left behind. We would appear to be relentlessly post-Lyotard.

Perhaps it is time to adjust this view. The book 30 Years after Les Immatériaux is about the exhibition that Lyotard curated for the Pompidou Centre in Paris in 1985 in co-operation with design theorist Thierry Chaput. At the time, Les Immatériaux was the most ambitious exhibition ever presented by the Centre: it took up the entire fifth floor, filling it with everything from robots and computer terminals to Egyptian reliefs and interactive video art. Even though Lyotard regarded the exhibition as a work of art, it was no art exhibition in the conventional sense; rather, it aimed to make manifest a number of trends epitomizing a “postmodern” situation, where information processing and technical and scientific innovation increasingly came to define the overall development of society. In his excellent contribution to the anthology, philosopher Robin Mackay describes the key role played by this project in the emergence of the art exhibition as an arena of philosophical debate and as a way of dramatizing contemporary culture. In this sense Les Immatériaux was a precursor of our present-day biennial culture, as well as of the widespread tendency towards mobilising contemporary art in the service of philosophy – and vice versa.

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