LA LEVADURA Y EL ANFITRION
Review, Philippe Parreno at Museo Jumex, Mexico City
Co-written with Aamna Muzaffar
Published in C magazine, Print, 2018
A floating foil balloon in the shape of an angel fish was gently moved by our arrival. More helium sea creatures drifted lazily through the dark gallery and its episodic beams of light. A few dozen folding chairs were scattered in front of a massive projection and sheets of colourful printer paper peppered the floor. In the centre of the room was a floor-to-ceiling glass case containing an array of technologies that frankly seemed too elaborate for what appeared to be happening: the projection of various films, one at a time. Also present were: a grand piano, a rotary phone, a stereoscopic projection of an analog clock, plus the Yeast and the Host the titular characters in this work by an artist for whom exhibition is the medium.
Philippe Parreno’s yeast are cared for by a bacteriological computer that monitors their activity and feeding schedule based on scripted and environmental variations. Many of the exhibition’s elements are altered by the Yeast’s activity by way of feed-back-dependant outputs. In essence, the museum has been rendered as a kind of Smart Home, tuned to the rhythmic respiration of these microorganisms. Transplanted from previous exhibitions like one baker’s sourdough starter to the home of another, the Yeast passes on a memory of the show’s sequence to subsequent generations. This stored knowledge sustains the work.
But while non-human biological memory remains an interesting area of scientific inquiry, the Yeast’s labour could easily have been performed by hardware and software alone. By weaving these yeast and their life-support system into the fabric of this production, Parreno introduces the kind of practical magic we once attributed to our computers and networked devices. His film Anywhen (2016) frames a similarly enigmatic encounter with yet another living organism: a lone cephalopod. Just like the backdrop in Anywhen, darkness is the natural home of cephalopods, the choice condition for bacteria and the default light setting in the gallery. Darkness is the semicolon repeated throughout the exhibition’s script, reminding us of the Yeast’s control as it intuits and calibrates the next stimulus. It is in darkness that we experience the Yeast and the cephalopod’s eerie marriage of the nat ural and technological sublime.
Mark Fisher’s working definition of “eerie” is two-fold; first, something where there should be nothing. What a cephalopod and a closed mouth should have in common is silence, but the disembodied voice of ventriloquist Nina Conti over the moving image of the cephalopod in Anywhen denies us this logic. Alternatively, nothing where there should be something, we can meet the human Host and comprehend their role, but struggle to grasp an assembly of bacteria, liquids, tubes, vessels and probes as their collaborator and the executor of this script with control over our experience.
A middle-aged man wears a suit, holds an iPad, plays the piano, whispers to visitors about what is happening. He, our host, is one of many who play the Host, a term that conjures multiple meanings:
– the person on a talk show who interviews guests
– a living thing that a parasite treats as house and home
– the one who kisses you on the cheek, takes your coat and puts a drink in your hand
– a computer storing data accessible by way of a network
The identity of Parreno’s hosts is compounded. They receive prompts from the Yeast via the iPad about what should happen next and can decide whether or not to abide. This recalls yet another definition of host: “the larger, stronger, or dominant member of a commensal or symbiotic pair.” Let’s pause on the suggestion of power. Like the Yeast, Parreno has written a part for the human despite the fact that the exhibition does not “need” a person. At one point, the Host plays the piano according to sheet music, only for the piano to begin playing itself later on (and the show’s sophisticated technology quickly eclipses the pianola, whose sales peaked, after all, in 1924). As suddenly as a piano key can provide its own weight, the Host’s impotence – like the factory worker’s – becomes plain. By interrupting the show’s operational workflow to make room for the intervention of a relationship between the Yeast and a human operator (and ensuring the visibility of this unnecessary favour), Parreno reduces human influence to the symbolic, or to that of a caretaker, depending how sentimental you tend to be.
Another of the projected films, No ghost just a shell (1999–2003), echoes this threatened obsolescence and illusory importance of the individual. Its sole subject is Anlee, a “now-deceased” manga character purchased by Parreno and Pierre Huyghe in 1999 from a Japanese animation company. Over the years, files containing Anlee’s image were passed to 16 artists, giving license for various permutations of her image to be crafted. No ghost just a shell is her monologue: an intense, achingly self-aware meditation on her infinite malleability and yet non-existence. She evokes in us an empathy otherwise reserved for sentient or fictional beings, neither of which quite describe her. “My exhibitions often hinge on characters, but they’re never in a fictional story,” says Parreno. “In fact, I’ve never told a story. Anlee tells her literal reality; there’s nothing fictional about it in the least.” It’s this absurd slice of truth that unveils what first appears to be our empathy for this puppet as identification with an existential melancholia that is so essentially human.
In The Crowd (2015), we watch from above as people laze around in daylight on an expansive hardwood floor: lying down with a book, napping, talking on the phone, sipping coffee with a friend. As the light wanes, and with the urgency of a torrential downpour, they get up, collect their things and leave. Next, they are reassembled as a standing mass in the dark. Their faces dimly illuminated by a lava-red hue, they stare in the same direction, and then another. They move as one, here and there, as if prompted by a catalytic force just outside the frame. They are submissive and emptied, but attentive. There is a feeling, in watching this herd, of having joined them. When daylight inexplicably returns, the crowd is seen leaving with the same easy composure as before, the spell broken.
While Parreno’s ties to relational aesthetics are something of the past, the word “participation” continues to buzz around dialogue about his practice. Though his work has regularly subjectivized the various goals of people assembled, it doesn’t evoke the word in the tune of relational aesthetics (wherein the artist makes a small request but ensures the audience/“participant” that the possible outcomes are infinite; the audience/“participant,” overwhelmed by the lack of parameters, performs even less than the small request). Instead, participation in the context of this exhibition might be read as post-relational aesthetics in the high time of the internet, where people are granted the privilege of occupying a space and observing and engaging the features therein, only to happen upon clues that seem to imply that a free lunch is never free. The Crowd is one such clue. Visitors do not become characters in a parallel world but material for an artist whose very medium is the exhibition.
THE BLACK BOX
Much like the concept of exhibition-as-medium, the film Continuously Habitable Zones (2011) evokes the artist’s fascination with world-building. A foreboding score accompanies moving images of a complex, shadowy and shimmery landscape suggestive of a celestial body. Informed by five disparate sites and realized through interventions such as controlled burning of vegetation, uprooting of trees, scattering of stones, and pigmentation of plants, CHZ is artifice of the highest order but the rigour of its construction remains concealed. If the scientific practice of developing terrestrial analogues (sites on Earth bearing the assumed characteristics of ancient places or celestial bodies) aims to overcome access limitations to time past or space untravelled, then CHZ might be understood as an analogue mission to a territory found in Parreno’s imaginings.
Between our bodies and the stage of theatre or frame of cinema, the delineation of realities is represented spatially: ours become relative to those of the performers but remain perceptibly divorced. It’s no wonder that 3D cinema’s attempt at forcing a co-mingling of realities through leaping images often results in a migraine a testament to the material resistance of these realities to one another. In Parreno’s use of the exhibition, as with the aims of total virtual reality, this margin is narrowed to the site of the body itself, swallowing the stage, frame, actor and audience into a single, immersive milieu.
But as long as the division between realities remains perceptible, mixed realities can only be achieved through novel suspensions of disbelief. In immersive environments like those that characterize Parreno’s practice, there is no marked threshold where you can check your disbelief along with your coat before entering. Across science and philosophy, black box theory maintains that the efficiency of a complex system’s functioning is inversely proportional to our ability to grasp its internal processes. The better it works, the more invisible its labour becomes. Parreno’s interest in automatons and autopoietic systems is fetishistically on display in the glass case in the centre of the room, replete with bioreactor, scientific instruments and a museum’s worth of audio, video, network hardware and peripherals. For Parreno, blackboxing is a device to summon the spirits in whose name the exhibition’s script attributes action: a film, a light, a piano, a rotary phone. The complex systems controlling our experience of La levadura y el anfitrión are hidden in plain sight: a black box in glass clothing.