1,2,3 Data group show, Batia Suter’s Radial Grammar, and VHILS’ Fragments Urbains are three exhibitions of contemporary art taking place in Paris this season. While they vary greatly in form and content, they all use found materials as the source for their art and address the relationship of humans to their environment, both natural and manmade.
VHILS, Fragments Urbains (19 May – 29 June 2018)
at Centre Centquatre, Paris
The Portuguese artist Alexandre Farto, who goes by the street tag VHILS (his favorite letters to spray as a teenager), came to fame for his street art first in his native Seixal, and then in a number of metropolises around the world. He created images by stripping, tearing, scratching through layers of posters on billboards, in what he calls an archeological process.
Farto’s other signature work involves carving giant human faces into the walls of abandoned buildings. Whether he’s working the outdoor or the indoor, his source is always the city and its people. The Centquatre Cultural Center introduces us to his latest work in six distinct rooms, each hosting one of the techniques he has devised to move his street art indoors. Aptly named, “Viscera” might be the most touching and effective work in the exhibition. A large image of a man’s face, looking as if created by a stencil, is projected in the darkness of a room on the wall facing the entrance. Thick, heavy curtains of black velvet isolate the galleries of the VHILS exhibition, from the 104 Art center’s main hall and from the city at large. The light, as visitors push through the curtains, changes the look of the image, making it nearly unreadable. The face seems African, adding drama, as we wonder if it will completely vanish, like the African immigrants drowning in the Mediterranean. When we choose to enter or to leave, we have a responsibility in the appearance and disappearance of the face, establishing an emotional relationship with the individual.
The Camadas (“broods,” “litters” in Portuguese) series presents the closest transliteration of VHILS billboard pieces. Instead of working with existing layers, his team of assistants glue layers of posters into monumental steles. The artist applies his stripping technique after adding a coat of white paint. The faces produced are highly effective visually. Large and stylized, the images’ photographic code is inspired by the traditional street art technique of stenciling. The individuality of the subject is blurred by the rendering’s lack of expression or of detailed features. As street art, these renditions of individuals stress the loss of humanity in the cities. The societal context of the city is lost in the gallery, but both the humanity and the materiality are regained by the steles and their weighty thickness. The paper layering conveys an impression of handcraft and ageing, while there is a pharaonic monumentality to the faces towering over the visitor. The stylized patterns that crawl into the pieces as if of their own accord add to the impression of traditional craft. They bring to mind antique techniques such as Navajo pottery or the border decorations of Hellenic vases. In another room, a large installation made out of styrofoam also plays with bi- and tri- dimensionality. The blocks of various heights represent a city in all its anonymity and uniformity. The visitor has to walk around the installation before an added element is revealed: the reflection of the city in a huge mirror on the ceiling delineates two faces, 3D turns into 2D to introduce humanity to the piece.
Stripping paper is only one of VHILS’ forays into creative destruction. After literally drilling faces into walls and facades, VHILS has turned to the rather boastful technique of dynamiting. The exhibition shows a number of videos where an image is revealed after a blank wall undergoes an explosion. Some of the dynamited walls reveal a message, the words just another code that replaces the codified faces of his earlier façade work. There is a suggestion of randomness to the result, certainly drama: we discover the outcome at the same time as the camera. But the artist has actually etched the image into the wall before adding a softer stucco on top of the work. He knows what is under. The promised act of chance is not really delivered as the results from the explosion are predetermined, with very little variation to be expected. This contrivance in “Diagrama,” as well as the reflection, lacks the expressive potency of the steles, or of his street pieces.
The challenging transition from public space to gallery, from ephemeral, gratuitous work to collectible pieces for posterity and prosperity, is often met with suspicion by the street art community. Protesters famously broke in and tagged an entire gallery showing “street art” in Brazil, – whether the work increased in value from the double layer of authorship has not been recorded. VHILS produces gigantic works that are bound to be noticed, and has developed his own combinations of techniques, the Makita hammer drill having been long his tool of predilection, to produce content that is homogeneous and recognizable: they constitute his brand. This marketable package gets attention in the art world, and puts pressure on an artist to stay within his own parameters. A series of wide angle, super-slow motion videos from major cities around the world demonstrates VHILS’ willingness to explore new avenues in terms of content and style. A mobile human subject, such as a cyclist in Hong Kong, is kept right in the center of the lens, while the city seems to revolve around that figure. With their stylized sound, the videos are reminiscent of Bill Viola’s seminal works in the 80s and 90s, such as Ascension. They reaffirm VHILS’ focus and attachment to the humanity of the individual threatened by the anonymity of the large city, by its forbidding architecture and economically driven urbanism.
The gallery attendance is sparse on a weekday at lunchtime. The 19th arrondissement locals, mostly immigrants and/or working class, have not chosen to push through the galleries’ heavy curtains. Instead, they are spread all around the gigantic hall the exhibition galleries look onto. A group of aspiring actors rehearse a play on a platform, a bunch of highly diverse individuals juggle on a large floor, while all sorts of dancing, hip hop, modern, folk, go on everywhere. Owning the space the Center makes available to communities, they perform for the pleasure of expressing themselves, without an audience, without remuneration. The 1900s building, with the harmonious dimensions and flooding sunlight of a Belle Epoque train station – and with the vibrancy of authentic community participation – does not retain the slightest gloom from its original function: a funerary parlor. Inaugurated in 2008, this miraculous experiment in urbanization demonstrates how to win the fight against the inner-city alienation that VHILS denounces.
Batia Suter, Radial Grammar (25 May – 26 August 2018) at Le Bal Art Center, Paris
In the alley leading to Le Bal Art Center, two incongruous posters at eye level picture the same gigantic image of a shoe. With the dimensions of a billboard high up over a highway, they could be mistaken for an advertisement, but the brand name is cleverly chopped off by a fold in the wall, and a small cartouche in the lower corner spells out the exhibition’s title. Seen myopically close, the images come across as monstrous, obscene in the paradox between their size and that of a human foot, in their remoteness from function and context. While one shoe could house a whole family of migrants living on the streets of Paris, they point ironically the way to the art center’s entrance.
Le Bal is named for the dancehall the building housed at the time of Toulouse-Lautrec. Since 2010, its team has been curating intriguing shows focused on the “document-image” and its relation to society and history. Batia Suter is the latest artist to be offered the duplex gallery for a carte blanche. On the first floor, a geometrically simple installation invites the viewer in. A long table in the middle of the room is laid with hundreds of pieces of plastic food packaging set in neat rows and columns. In a parallel installation, photos of uniform size, in regular rows and columns, cover three walls of the gallery. The black and white images, mostly of people, look like they were scavenged from handbooks and encyclopedia in flea markets. And for the most part, they were. Suter admits to buying a second-hand book for just one image that captured her eye. None of the found images are contemporary, the most recent ones dating from the 60s, but the people all look like we should know them. Is that Greta Garbo or just another star from the 30s? Is that Velvet Underground’s Nico in dark glasses? Certainly a socialite from the 60s. Is the man eating spaghetti the French comic Fernandel, famous for promoting a brand of pasta? In addition to the celebrities, the images also display familiar types: a jeering American redneck who might be attending a lynching; a family man from a 50s advertisement, brand and slogan suppressed; the face of a dead soldier; a glutton. A few images are in color, just to prove the creator can break her own rules. Photos of oil portraits, statues and film stills are also featured, referring more to the interest our Western world has invested in a particular culture (Pharaonic, Persian, Renaissance, German Expressionism, and so on) than to its essence. Most of the art is ancient, the photos vintage, and the people pictured probably dead, as in these dejected encyclopedias that have lost their raison d’être: convey valuable information. In addition to the enlargement and the elimination of color, Suter applies various distortions to the images. This results are an impression that a stereoscopic device would be needed to restore perception. Whether the deformation should be attributed to Suter or the author of the original image can be ambiguous, as in the merged portrait of Mao and Marilyn, or in a reproduction of a painting that looks blurred until we recognize the brush of Chaim Soutine. These distancing techniques mute the specificity of the images, turning them into mere motifs in the larger work intended by Suter. Just as the packaging exhibited is empty of its original food, whether crackers or lentils or candy, the photographic enlargements poached from our frenetic culture, and its massive production of images, have been divested of their individual content. They become source material, the paint box the hoarding artist uses to create her work.
People who collect empty packages suffer from mental issues, but Suter has hit upon a delectable exorcism for her loot. In this show she sequences the photos up and down regular columns, and along rows according to her own parameters. The nose seems to have caught her attention along one row; here the profile informs a column; there, a series of incarnations of the circle. A sequence aligns images of obesity – eating – food, the latter a recurring theme, or should we say fodder? With this modest, playful process, the artist indulges in her solitary pleasure, a kind of onanism, and we have come a long way from thinking one gets deaf from the practice. Suter does not pretend to an intellectually elaborate practice, to an analytical dissection of our culture. Instead, we are invited to partake in Suter’s self-exploration, as if led by a child around the magical garden of the imagination.
In the gallery downstairs, Suter has played with the harmonious dimensions of that space, which is larger and more airy. The sleek black floor invites the visitor to lounge on giant pillows and enjoy the slide projection enlivening one of the walls, or let their eyes wander around the room. The images, again in black and white, vary in sizes and climb the white walls at the whim of the artist, unlike the systematic rows upstairs. Some reproductions of details are repeated upstairs and downstairs, but the basement space is dedicated wittily to the lower part of the body: a human backbone, the drape of a dress, a chest, a foot in a shoe. The slideshow sequences single images of archetypes. We see “the table,” rather than “a table,” and “the “woodstove,” and the “chronometer.”
Upstairs the images are isolated from any background or context, and therefore not readily identifiable: an abstract composition could be formed by microscopic bacteria or by hay strewn on a white floor. An unidentifiable piece of equipment might have a use, or not. The vocabulary is the same, but with a different theme. Many images depict obsolete objects, and even when the subjects are contemporary, their isolation from context and the absence of bright colors make them look nostalgic. They partake of a referential of images we share, even if we can’t identify them precisely. We are gathered around our common vocabulary of visuals in a space that evokes the insides of a skull, or the famous cave. Here the distorted, fragmentary images are projected by Suter to create her version of the complex world outside. While we can read an ironical commentary on our culture’s obsession with images, and on their blandness when taken out of context, the exhibition expresses additionally the poignancy of worlds disappeared. The exhibition can be perceived as an extension, or a tridimensional incarnation, of Suter’s book Parallel Encyclopedia (2016). More than an encyclopedia, with its notion of universal knowledge, the exhibition comes across as a personal mausoleum of lost impressions, of obsolete images, of lives ended.
1,2,3 Data (4 May – 6 October 2018)
at Fondation EDF, Paris
We live surrounded by big data. Unseen, silent, ubiquitous, the elephant looms large in the room: its world volume at this nanosecond is in the 5 zettabytes (1021) range. The EDF Foundation is presenting an exhibition about “the world of data, which is much more reassuring when it is thus artistically tamed” through the works of artists and designers. While you would think that the Louvres and the Metropolitan Museum combined would not offer enough gallery square footage to scratch the surface, the exhibition takes place on the three floors of the EDF Foundation, a clean, modern, but unimposing building on the Left Bank.
The ground floor is dedicated to Exhibitory Design, works by creators who use data primarily as an artistic source. Most pieces would not be out of place in a regular, if cutting-edge art gallery. Marcin Ignac, who identifies as an artist/programmer/designer, created “Quantifying Other,” after his father suffered an accident. The title of the piece refers to the rather egocentric “Quantifying self” movement, which has chapters and conferences around the world. Instead of obsessing with his own physical variables, he had his father collect data from both his body and his activities using a wristband, in the hope of establishing a closer bond. Ignac’s plan was not always successful, as his father wore the band only episodically, and data was lost by his sporadic synching of measurements. Coming up with a tridimensional visualization that looks like a plant with joyful colors and fractal shapes, Ignac has created a lovely image of his father’s healing progress.
Excerpts from “Income Inequality in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York and Paris.” Above: NYC
A less joyful but stunningly beautiful and expressive work, “Income Inequality in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York and Paris,” by Herwig Sherabon, represents income data with blocks proportional in height to the residents’ income. The maps of these cities thus computed have a grey, ominous appearance that brings to mind the photos of cities devastated by a nuclear disaster. And isn’t that exactly what is at hand, a society devastated by economic inequalities?
On a lighter note, the interactive piece, “Multiplicity,” was commissioned by the EDF Foundation from Moritz Stefaner, a “truth and beauty operator,” according to his website. A computer interface allows the visitor to choose Instagram photos taken by people in Paris. Sorted by subject matter, the images stack up to create a monstrous collage of neon signs, or tattoos, or faces, etc. The piece aims to show a picture of the city created by the people present there right now, but there is no filtering by income or neighborhood or by any other telling parameter. If the algorithm had let us select the Instagram shots by neighborhood, a picture might have emerged in which the tattoos chosen by immigrants in the 19th arrondissement are distinct from those of hipsters in the 10th, and totally different from the tattoos decorating the skins in the bourgeois 16th (if they exist at all). While it’s fun to manipulate the data, we already knew people in Paris have tattoos, visit the Moulin Rouge and take selfies. The resulting selection translates into little more than the usual social media noise: wide-spread narcissism, absence of singularity, absence of meaning. Not humanity at its best, or so one assumes, and its beauty is certainly debatable. The Multiplicity piece does at least prompt us to question the ownership of big data, in particular of images (whether that was the intention of the ‘truth and beauty operator’ is unclear). Other pieces focus on faces as data, or data from faces.
Upstairs, on the floor dedicated to Explanatory Design, Jonathan Harris and Greg Hochmuth’s, “The Network Effect,” allows the visitor to pick photos of people according to their location or their expression. Selecting with the Boolean operators “angry” + “old” + “female” brings up a woman typically in her forties with a slightly puzzled expression. Selecting for a young, angry man brings up, interestingly, a young man pointing a very real gun at his own head. Another piece, “One Angry Bird,” deals with the facial expressions of the last six presidents of the USA, providing a scale of various emotions during their recorded speeches, the viewer choosing the president and the speech. This device is of very little value to anyone, whether an individual or an organization, but maybe that’s what the curator David Bihanic means when he refers to the poetic aspect of the work. Indeed, the futility seems a conscious choice as hinted by its title, which refers to the once hyper-popular and utterly pointless game Angry Birds.
The lack of practical applications of the exhibits above is not typical of Big Data. On the contrary, the information gathered and analyzed by data specialists allows one to control people, influence minds, manipulate elections, and increase sales. It’s a trillion dollar industry. The benefits to the people are rather more arguable. One of the exhibits, by designer Sarah Illenberger, is entitled “Are You Satisfied With The Size of Your Breasts?” 79% of women are, as visualized by a cappuccino size cup vs. an espresso cup for women who are not. Is that a pun on cup size? This information is of no use to women, but might be of interest to underwear manufacturers and to men in general, apparently since the piece was commissioned by Esquire magazine. Lay people have very little control over big data, whether they can access it, correct it or control its exploitation. It’s better to be seated and have an emesis bag at hand when reading about the extent of the personal data collected by various companies. The exhibit Casino Las Datas, by a collective of the same name, encourages us to gamble our personal data in exchange for chips. The more information players reveal, the more chips they gain. The data collecting begins with the first name and gender, which are worth 1 token each, and ends with fingerprints and credit card numbers, which are worth 10 tokens each. But the tokens don’t turn into anything profitable for the player, not even a Tripadvisor badge or a Farmville Ribbon! The concept is entertaining, and gets the message across.
In fact, entertainment, artistic expression, information, and their interplay provide the more credible benefit of big data for the individual. A number of pieces aim at making data concerned with ecology easier to grasp. Dan Majka’s, “Migration in Motion,” animates the migration of species due to global warming. While he defines himself as a scientist, his use of bright colors against a dark map demonstrates the rush of animals toward colder regions in a way that is both effective and expressive. For “Wind of Istanbul,” one of many exhibits concerned with wind, Refik Anadol took measurements to model wind movements over the Turkish capital. Power, direction and temperature are represented on this screen in 3D and 4K. The resulting animation is beautiful to look at; hard to tell whether it’s as useful as it is charming to the eye. All these pieces use graphics to convey information, with an effort to make it readable and expressive, whether it’s with histograms, or animated variables. One piece [image file name: ties-and-education.png], by Share Lab Share Foundation – as elegant as its content is sobering – diagrams Facebook’s management’s ties to companies, organizations and education institutions.
A sizeable section of the exhibition shows pieces that do not use electronic means to express data visually. Instead, their designers resort to concrete materials such as food, clothes, and various objects (with cups a favorite), blurring boundaries between function and expression. This “tangible data” aims at a more intuitive response to the data they express. Moritz Stefaner and Susanne Jaschko offer “Energy Mix,” a pizza burned at 85% communicates that only 15% of the energy used to produce this pizza in Switzerland comes from renewable energies. Food is a favorite, probably because of its universal appeal: the ratio of women in universities takes the form of fried eggs, while a study on mortality in Belgium is illustrated with chocolate coffins. Gareth Holt and Ben Branagan produced “Rank,” a shirt where each band of fabric represents proportionately a class of society, the fabrics (striped cotton, checkered flannel, coarse cloth) relating to the various occupations. The amount of work and skill involved edges this piece to be classified as art rather than design. The blurring of boundaries between art and activism and information is a current trend that holds a lot of potential. It is curious to observe these fields merge again when they were carefully split apart in our Western rationalist society during the Renaissance. The pretty mermaids that frolicked in the oceans of early maps fell victims to the new sternness, when the only standard for the representation of data became efficiency. In this section, as in others, simple and smart is often more immediate and effective. In “Are You Sure You Want To Smoke,” by Giacomo Flaim, cigarette butts, as they pile up, correlate to the number of days or weeks they will shorten a life.
In the basement, Exploratory Design looks at tools and functions associated with data. Richard Vijgen’s “The Architecture of Radio” visualizes on a screen the radio waves that surround us. The elegant animation offers a rewarding aesthetic experience, in contrast to the anxiety we feel at realizing that multitudes of waves vibrate in our living spaces and affect us physically. The website associated to the exhibition links to this piece and every other exhibit, including the section “Recode,” games that focus on creating and expressing rather than winning. “First edition,” by Herman Schmidt, lets the user move around a circle that starts in a perfect shape to disintegrate as it becomes more complex and creates an elegant line drawing.
Typing furiously on the keyboard creates a visual melody, as each key corresponds to a note and shape in the game “Patap,” by Jono Brandel, there is a sense of excitement of undiscovered territories to be explored and built on, but many of the pieces seem utterly futile, particularly when one considers the amount of work required. It’s disputable whether the visitor leaves feeling more empowered in regards to the world of large data, or merely somewhat more knowledgeable about what data is produced and available, and how that data can be used. A presentation of the relative importance of canopy in various cities, Treepedia, would be of use to whom and how, exactly? The young designers might be too excited about their new medium, with its exponential potential, to come up with significant content, a frequent occurrence with new technology – think zoom effect in 70s cinema, synthesizers in 80s music, Java on the 00s Internet.
“Data fetishism,” a phenomenon which has been gathering attention in philosophical and sociological circles, might be at work too. Numbers tend to be taken for the explanation and the solution to everything, because they’re easy, they’re simple, they can be made into graphs and representation when reality often consists of more complexity. The exhibition also offers little reflection in terms of what could and should be done in terms of protecting individuals’ private data and having them benefit from big data. The foundation is financed by EDF, a 70+ billion Euro a year energy company largely owned by the French government, and largely invested in nuclear power, an unpopular source of energy. While showing environmentally conscious exhibits helps clean up their image, they might have limited motivation in offering means of resistance to the public.
Let’s take a last look at an emblematic piece, David Bowen’s “Tele-Present Water.” A metal grid oscillates in the air, reproducing exactly the movements in real time of a wave in the Pacific Ocean, thousands of miles away. While we watch this object of metal and plastic animated by electronic circuits and informational flux, we are offered a reproduction of reality through the creative act of the artist. We can conjure up the presence of that remote wave, the swishing water, the currents and winds that affect its shape, with the means, instead of oil pigments or watercolor, of electronics. Best thing about this piece? Its beacon’s GPS feed has been lost! The wave’s physical parameters are still being transmitted but its location is unknown. While still allowing us to enjoy the beauty of its dancing silhouette, this wave has wrested its anonymity, its privacy, its freedom from marketers and tax calculators and natural resource exploiters and profit analysts. We should all be so lucky.
Arabella Hutter von Arx is Paris and New York City Art Critic for Riot Material magazine. Ms. Hutter von Arx is a writer with a background in film and TV production. While producing for the BBC, Channel 4, Gaumont, Bravo (Inside the Actors’ Studio) then working as the executive director of IQ, an international organization of producers, she contributed regularly articles for magazines and European newspapers. She devotes now all her time to writing, with a particular focus on the arts and on women’s issues.