"Streamside Day", 2003 © Pierre Huyghe

New relationships to nature have been fostered by the increasing awareness of our entry in the era of the Anthropocene and as a result the figure of biological life has largely become an obsessive metaphor. For artists, it is less a form of aesthetical inspiration than an opportunity to reconsider their work by circumventing the separations and simplifications of modern culture. Pierre Huyghe talks to Stream about his interest for the complexity of biological life, and the manner in which he is trying to incorporate it in his work over time, as well as his concepts of indifference, non-destination and under-determination. Introducing biological life in an oeuvre comes down to accepting a loss of control, creating a spectrum of undefined possibilities, and bringing about areas of “non-knowledge” and speculative conditions in the life forms.

Pierre Huygue is a French artist. A recipient of many awards, and having been exhibited in the most prestigious international cultural institutions, his work investigates the complexity of organic life in order to create the conditions for the emergence of a self-evolving work.

Interview with Éric Troncyadvises large companies on their strategy, organization and management culture. He is the co-founder of he consulting firm Quartier Libre, and Philippe Chiambaretta, graduated from the École des Ponts et Chaussées of Paris and MIT in Boston. He is the founder and director of PCA-STREAM.

Éric Troncy : Pierre, I suggest that Philippe starts by touching on the concerns he has which gave him the idea of speaking with you after seeing your exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. I know you both, and I believe that you share some common areas of interest in your respective fields.

Philippe Chiambaretta : For this third edition of Stream, we began with a simple observation: humanity is becoming urban. This urban explosion is a new phenomenon given its unprecedented proportions correlated to an exponential demographic growth: we will be nine billion humans and we know full well that this urbanization will draw on the planet’s resources far beyond what it is capable of sustaining. This is a known fact since 1972—with the Meadows report—but it is now evident to all of us. Cities will become the place where the problem will be concentrated and where the solution will have to be found. As urban planners / architects, it is a consideration which we must already take into account: we must understand the fundamental elements of this phenomenon which is deeply transforming our living conditions, the tools we use to represent the world, to design, to model, and finally the changing of practices, and how all this affects our way of living in the world.

Everyone says that we are living a profound paradigm shift—I find this rather interesting and exciting. There are those who believe that this is a disaster and those who want to seize the opportunity to foster the rise of a new era. A certain number of phenomena have been identified and when I visited your exhibition at the Pompidou, I found some fairly unbelievable congruities with these minute discoveries, and some of these intuitions strongly resonate with what I have seen or read of your work.

"Streamside day", A score, 2003 © Pierre Huyghe
"Streamside day", A score, 2003 © Pierre Huyghe
"Streamside day", A score, 2003 © Pierre Huyghe


From object to process

One idea is that we have reached a moment where classical science—which emerged in the seventeenth century with its Cartesian rationality and which worked by means of a simplification of reality—isn no longer capable of addressing the complexity of an ecosystem, for instance, of a community of living beings and environmental components in which things interact with one another. This is the notion that there has been some sort of an epistemological shift toward the era of complex science. And this school of thought leads to the idea of a sort of fusion between the environment and humankind—it is the figure of the Anthropocene.

Pierre Huyghe : A word which now stigmatizes many things.

Philippe Chiambaretta : Yes, one must be cautious about this. We are so inclined to look for concepts that as soon as there is a new word, everyone gets in and uses it—in this case to signify that humankind’s actions are projecting us into a new geological era. At the same time the metaphor of biological life is cropping up in fundamental science, but also in art or architecture, with the idea of metabolic urbanism.

Pierre Huyghe : Which has been coming back in architecture over the past fifteen years or so, hasn’t it?

Philippe Chiambaretta : Indeed, but what is interesting is that at the beginning it tended to be in relation to biomorphism and biomimetics: new technologies now enable us to depart from Euclidian geometry and we can make organic forms because we now have the tools to conceive them and even to build them. This has never really interested me because I find it too literal.

Pierre Huyghe : Yes, indeed.

Philippe Chiambaretta : I am thinking of works which now depart from the mimicry of form to delve into the process, to the way the complexity of biological life is organized. This is something I find profoundly interesting. The second “major subject” I’d like to share with you has to do with space and time. In our experience of daily life, we perceive the development of that relationship, due to globalization, our constant travel, and digital technologies. From complexity to the space-time continuum: you see how much I feel your exhibition relates to these issues.

Éric Troncy : It comes as no surprise that all these things are very familiar to Pierre, and maybe we must focus on these points for the time being as they are far from being commonly applied to visual arts. Pierre, I imagine that this has underpinned part of your work, in which I see an inflection point with the creation of The Host and the Cloud. Since that moment, the way you work, your processes of thinking, understanding, expressing, and translating experiences to ideas seems to overlap with much of this. Let us stick with this for the time being, even if you seem to be slightly reluctant to embrace the idea of an Anthropocene.

Pierre Huyghe : I think we are trying to find a way around the forms of separation, which simplify, and that we are working on the basis of continuities. There is a non-porosity, categorizations, a system of thought between object and subject which was always correlated, and the now very present idea of cutting away from what separates things by means of this correlation. Certain systems of thought, even if they are highly developed—that is, not only learnt but developed by a generation—wear out after a while when they lose their relevance as a tool and become signs of power, ideological means of maintaining positions. That is maybe what I started seeing at the time of The Host and the Cloud. What previously seemed to me to be pillars which could form the basis of my understanding were new ideologies that appeared rigid, unaccepting of corruption, i.e., unable to change. Figures of authority, putting on a show of openness. I tried to identify what had made it possible for me to think like I think now, to ask myself to what I had been exposed, how I had been influenced and affected, and to put these elements in doubt.

"The Host and the Cloud", 2009-2010 © Ola Rindal
"The Host and the Cloud", 2009-2010 © Ola Rindal
"The Host and the Cloud", 2009-2010 © Pierre Huyghe


Simplifying for the sake of transmission leads to a loss of accuracy, precision, and complexity. Complexity is made of opposites which are not expelled to make it possible to generate something else. An external body. Simplification is unbearable. As an artist, “relational aesthetics” or the “artist who makes movies” are simplistic classifications which try to categorize ways of doing things. At the moment of The Host and the Cloud, to keep myself separate from this, I was trying to cast out these models of thought—the mad master of my position as an exhibit—including those that I had myself created, in part and with others, and which had become static. Something had to start flowing into the contingent; to start being porous, accepting one's opposites, overcoming one’s condition by leaving a series of operations to self-generate. Let us be clear on something: it isn’t only a self-generating system which becomes an object, because that has been happening for a few years in architecture for example: we make models of ecosystems, the way clouds move, birds fly in flocks; a system of flows. And of course, modeling ends up becoming a design tool used to produce buildings.

Weaken the intent

All that is nevertheless purposely designed: there is a destination, an access, but also absolutely no happenstance encounter, when a new building is ordered—given the production costs, policies, and people who will live there, there are huge expectations. I don't want to digress, but it is the issue of indifference and non-destination, of the necessity of breaking away from what separates and, in any case, of non-access. It is much more complicated for an architect than for an artist, I guess. When you generate a system, do you define conditions or relations? The Host and the Cloud doesn’t try to define relations between elements—this comes back to the issue of the complexity of living things, to processes and not mimicry. By living things, I am not referring to living organisms (plants or animals), but how complexity can be understood or misunderstood in a practice, as a part of something else, a building, a city, an organization, etc. Complexity is without contradictions—it changes, a body is influenced, there is a flow of meaning. Meaning has flowed from the artifact, from the approach. In this exhibition at Pompidou, with The Host and the Cloud—but also with Documenta, a compost where living entities and artifacts left without culture are co-presented—I am trying to introduce an indeterminate possibility, some life. To attain this, it is necessary to reduce the intensity of intention, otherwise it is design, staging, choreography, therefore written. These were things I used in a critical manner ten years ago, until I realized that critique didn’t interest me anymore. I would rather absorb the opposites to allow for some semantic porosity. There is no hierarchical or ideological system which will classify, tidy up, order, or simplify to make things reassuring, and as a result I accept weakness, accidents, mistakes, and a certain level of loss of control. But that is how zones of non-knowing are created. In this, the living assumes its importance.

Éric Troncy : It would appear that, in this specific case, the idea is to move the control to a less psychosomatic level, let’s say.

Pierre Huyghe : It is not a question of giving up things to chance, or I would throw up two ideas and they would fall in a certain way. We well know that the casting of dice won’t abolish randomness and that is why there’s a moment of hesitation—it is that hesitation to cast the dice which is important. The operation itself will always be the same, always random, and only offers a single solution: “every single possible solution.” At the moment, I am trying to lessen intentionality and to separate myself from having to fix a destination.

"Untilled", 2011-2012 (détail) © Pierre Huyghe
"Untilled", 2011-2012 (détail) © Pierre Huyghe


Philippe Chiambaretta : Can you clarify the notion of destination?

Pierre Huyghe : There are things which are in themselves indifferent. I take interest in what grows indifferently from the necessary hysteric outlook. An art object is a hysteric object—it needs sight to exist, and that moment is the exhibition. That is why I have worked on this ritual, of its dynamic process between subject and object. I am trying to keep away from the ordinary word “exhibition” and to turn it upside down, for instance by exhibiting someone to something. An exhibition is a ritual of separation, the format we make do with. Again, it has too much destination, too much intention. I am referring more to the coming into sight of things which are indifferent to the “for us,” with moments where they exist, shift away from our sight, and moments of emergence. To come back to biological life for instance, Adolf Portman talks about self-presentation and appearance without any recipient in the animal world. I don’t know how that happens, where this suddenly falls into the field of architecture, with its political, economic, and social issues—at that level, I am relatively more sheltered. For instance, the reason why all urban parks are so predictably boring in their programming is that they are “intended for” an average. I thought that the problem was coming from the increasingly large public, but the problem is this destination: what the public should think and have.  

Philippe Chiambaretta : I find that fascinating and those are also my permanent concerns these days: to no longer be in a design, a finished and therefore iconic form. These days, a whole system leads up to that—that is what we were describing in Stream 1, how the system of material economy leads to an iconic and hysteric production of closed and authoritarian objects. You are right, it is more difficult in the case of architecture. As for knowing how to allow a metabolism of the project to act? What is interesting is that I came to that idea by talking with the director Jacques Audiard, who told me “I have a script, but I want the participants to appropriate it.” It becomes what he calls the metabolization of film. I have the impression that our generation longs for it, that it is maybe a reaction to different forms of over-determination.

Pierre Huyghe : Yes, access and especially what it entails is an issue. A nightmare where everything must be open to interpretation by everyone. Even if is necessary to cast doubt on ideologies, when it becomes one, it’s difficult. There are different conditions, cultures, milieus, Umwelt, a thing which says “this” changes meaning, but within a same Umwelt, blue isn’t blue-purple-pink-green-yellow, or we would indulge in the instrumentalization of an art which must be accessible to all and into a form of populism.

Éric Troncy : Of course, it is the double utopia, both very 1970s and very 2000s, for completely different reasons—1970s for ideological reasons and 2000s because there was no more time to waste on ideology—but at the end of the day, they are the same utopia.

Pierre Huyghe : And they produce some ethics...

Philippe Chiambaretta : Maybe in the latent ideas which govern this intuition there is a notion of resilience, which is very present at the moment in architecture. For example, to have a city that would be capable of self-healing, an autonomy of the system to self-regulate in order to survive.

Pierre Huyghe : We are entering the century where the word “to repair” will enter into the field of ethics.

Éric Troncy : In fact, “to repair” comes just after “to redeem.” For quite some time, the idea was to redeem and to exchange something for something a bit better. “To repair” is of course something much more “hardcore”—it is insidiously indisputable. But let us maybe set that aside for the moment to look, as Philippe suggested in his introduction, at the matters of time and space.

Philippe Chiambaretta : I perceive in your work this idea of engaging with time, of departing from the format of time and of the exhibition. You started doing that at Documenta, by saying “now I would like to carry out a project which would spread out over several years,” this idea of non-determination at a moment where the system continues to develop. In our case, we are necessarily in the middle of this.  

Pierre Huyghe : There have been long-lasting examples...

Éric Troncy : City, Michael Heizer’s city / sculpture project in the Nevada desert, which you probably know, began in 1972 and has being going on for over forty years.

"Zoodram 4", 2001 (from Constantin Brancusi, 1910) © Pierre Huyghe

Navigating the indeterminate

Pierre Huyghe : In general this type of project addresses this issue in a very formal, structural, and fully respectable way, but what I would be interested in, if something was to unfold over the long-term, would be to bring about changes of intensity in organizations, behaviors, life forms, chemical reactions. Less a permanent monument and more of a variable set of unintentional and continuous situations. I work with an embryologist who focuses on cells at the moment when they are being differentiated. Their differentiation has to do partly with a signal, but also with the position of the cell in a whole. He is interested in how something indeterminate, an undifferentiated cell, becomes differentiated and will form part of the nose, of an eye, etc. But he has observed something fascinating: there is a possible reversibility, from a differentiated cell back to an undifferentiated one. He studies rats whose brains are made up of sixty percent of human cells; rats that can see in color. I am interested in working with him on the processes of influence and epigenetics—on living systems that are self-generating due both to constraints and speculation, and in any case very far from any biomimetic formalism. What isn’t predictable isn’t acceptable.

Philippe Chiambaretta : Ecosystems...

Pierre Huyghe : Yes, even though I banished the word. I got interested in the rhythms of a set of protagonists in a shared environment, a situated network, or in different conditions of friction, or the way in which something rhythmically emerges. There is something interesting in the fact that I am not the one exhibiting something but that it is the thing which is exhibiting itself. I turn into a curator, just like Éric, with the difference that I would like to define speculative conditions of life, not to have things appear and not only “for us.” The propositional impulse of a thing. So the issue of time has become rhythmical, a pulsation.

Éric Troncy : The way you talked about it twenty years ago certainly isn’t the same as now.

Pierre Huyghe : Indeed, I've shifted in this use of the word "time, toward something that emerges at certain moments and then disappears.

Philippe Chiambaretta : You are departing from the time you experienced as an artist, the one you controlled through the exhibition, with this process of loss of control. A bit of self-effacing and it becomes the time of the other—in this case, of the animal or of biological life.

Pierre Huyghe : A rhythm in which the human animal is present. I can get as interested in the aspect of a butterfly as in a Balenciaga dress, a technique for digging tunnels, or the presence of someone in a ritual known as an exhibition. Human culture is an extension of animal culture so I feel close to a bird of paradise singing to court a female or to a termite when I product artifacts.

Philippe Chiambaretta : A termite?

Pierre Huyghe : A termite, or a bird of paradise. I feel that I release artifacts according to a certain rhythm, for a very precise reason. I am now trying to distance myself from a mechanical way of thinking—I am not thinking in terms of “my work” or “my works.” I prefer saying that I do “things,” that I do “something” that emerges or not; I try to distance myself from habits that lead to ways of thinking which are simplified, categorized, or linked to a given period.

"Streamside day", A score, 2003 Film Still © Pierre Huyghe

Éric Troncy : Once we dissociate this exploration of the notion of time from the question of exhibiting, this clearly opens much larger, and much less formal prospects, but these are also much more difficult to describe as a result. I find this idea of “I am doing something” rather nice. All things considered, it is probably the most precise way of describing a position within a production system, what could be your position in the production and expression system which houses these things you are doing—they may be works, maybe a play, or situations. “I am doing something”—that blurred territory which I believe makes it possible for all the antagonisms you were talking about earlier to coexist. That is, a thing and its opposition can exist at the very same time and ultimately this isn’t a deterrent but rather a blessing. The word “complexity” is now a bit too elaborate to use, so let’s say a blessing. It was necessary to stop plastering the issue of time over that of the exhibit. Then, of course, one must want to grapple with uncertainty. That is why it is absolutely necessary to have, on an almost psychoanalytical level, foregone the question of authority—it couldn’t happen without it.

Pierre Huyghe : Is there a term to express the moment where we accept error, accidents, doubt, non-negative or opposite things? The Non Standard exhibition showed how modern ideology had swept away everything that was corrupt, affected, deviant, etc. in order to become a model, a symptom of its times. Thought was required to have a certain level of purity for it to be transmitted, globalized, colonizing. I feel it is more profitable to have the capacity to introduce opposites in construction models, to consider that it is only a stage in a condition of exposure. As a result, the matter is delicate because it appears like a loss of control over what is being proposed.

Éric Troncy : All that does form a body of thought, what we could nearly call a skeptical body of thought, despite the fact that art history has always been a matter of convictions. For me, a major revelation of the exhibition at the Centre Pompidou was precisely to see that the most recent generations of “spectators” were immediately at ease with the idea that there were no set rules of the game, but that the rules would be produced by the elements in place—not randomly, but in unexpected ways—and that this would lead to a relation to space and time which is very different.

Philippe Chiambaretta : I recently participated in an urban design competition on plots which were set to mutate in time, over several decades. We had to determine some non-variable parts, some stable things, but also to define an open and malleable process. We proposed a project which was completely upgradeable, or under-determined in your words. But part of the jury was attached to the idea of a grand project, to sketches. We were criticized for lacking vision and conviction. Today, we are working on the changes in behaviors and needs, and therefore of design processes. I think our research comes much earlier than form—it lies in understanding our behaviors and the way we conceive their changes over time. It’s a pity, but we truly have observed this difficulty in accepting indeterminacy in the process.

Pierre Huyghe : Yes, there is an anxiety, with the absence of a reassuring system, but that is indeed the dimension I am working on now that I have accepted to navigate with a certain level of indeterminacy.

(This article was published in Stream 03 in 2014.)