Interview by Henri-François Debailleux (2018)

You initially worked with paint and then, around 1990, you started using digital technologies. How come?

My paintings were then influenced by Rauschenberg’s Combine Paintings and Stella’s Shaped Canvas and I was already using mixed techniques such as etching and painting as I enjoyed working with metal plates that you incise and ink. In the very early 1990’s, I was hooked on spiral forms and it was also when I had access to first digital printers. So I thought about how to produce spirals with this new technological device and soon, I had the idea of coding them rather than doing them by hand. There was no Internet in those days, but I soon found a book where I learnt how to do it, it was apparently very simple, using a mere “simplified fractal”. I was not an expert programmer but I knew the basics, so I went for it, it was quite easy indeed, but the phrase “simplified fractal” was still buzzing in my head and one day I thought “what would happen if I did not simplify it?”. In other words, what would happen if instead of using one straight line’s segment rotated again and again, I used several of them? I was shocked by what I had engendered: an over simplistic code, no more than two lines of it, could produce a whole universe, replete with every kind of visual sensations you can think of: organic, geometric, architectural, topographical images were generated and they were nothing but the results of one single additional variation. I thought I had discovered the code of the World’s creation, and there was something Promethean about it. Moreover, when you actually write down the algorithm, you have no clue what the result will be. As I felt somehow stuck as a painter, I saw that as a port of entry into something different and meaningful in our mutating world.

 

In the mid-90’s, you belonged to the movement called Fractalism. Are you still interested in fractals?

Yes, I am still working with such geometrics. Most of my algorithmic pieces, and especially the textual ones are still generated by a fractal algorithm. This enables me to dwell on repetition at different scales, and to display very small and very big font sizes but also text trees that overlap and interact, multiplying scales of meanings, endlessly. So, yes, definitely, I am still interested in fractals, but as artistic tools and no longer as something that unites us in an artistic movement. The mid-90s were still a pre-Internet age, a transition period if you will, and we were still very much under the spell of fascinating texts such as Deleuze & Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus or Baudrillard’s The Transparency of Evil. There was a lack of artistic visual images illustrating that world in mutation and that’s when fractals played such an important role.

 

Why did you start with lines only?

Because it is the easiest motif to put into code! The minute you process other elements such as texts for instance, as I currently do a lot, you are facing layers of additional complexity that I did not master at the time. And way back then, I very much strove to have control on what I was able and wanted to do, both at conceptual and visual levels. Later on, as I was gradually becoming more confident in what I could or could not do, I developed an interest in accidents, mishaps, surprises, perspectives, and the multiplicity of reading layers. Paradoxically, it set me free. I then started to add texts or pre-fabricated images.

 

You have stretched that line in every direction, and you seem to have probed into all its potentialities and possible variations… What did you learn from it?

A lot ! (laughs) Because a line is not just a line: it is a whole story. It might even be the story of Mankind. The Aborigines in Australia believe that a line can reveal the history of the world’s creation. They also use the same word to refer to a line or to a territory. A line always makes me think of Lucretius’s clinamen. According to Epicure and his followers, the creation of the world stems from the slight swerve of atoms in their apparently vertical fall, they knock together, giving birth to the real world. To put it in a nutshell, a line generates reality.

It is a very interesting aesthetic tool because you can transform a curve into a straight line by stretching it endlessly. It is a game I have enjoyed playing at, up to these days. Curvaceous lines also reveal the story of the Baroque movement in Western civilizations. They also speak volumes.

 

And how did you move on to words?

I did because I wanted to combine geometrical patterns, texts, images, and all sorts of data in works of art that digital technologies could easily produce. Because of their very nature, words or texts obviously carry their own semiotic inputs with them. But bringing all this up to any artistic achievement took more time than when working with lines. Exploiting words or texts in art is a well-chartered territory; think of Lettrism or the works by Ed Ruscha, for instance. So I took my time but the encounter with William Burroughs’s art was a key moment for my new investigations.

 

In what way?

The Cut-Up techniques developed by William Burroughs and Brion Gysin in the late 50s and 60s have opened new horizons for me. Burroughs was a writer, but when compared with other Beat artists, he has a very peculiar and singular visual approach to words and language. His vision is also political: How to fight against language? How to cut the printed page so that words can be liberated, how to cut the present to let the future come? Cutting up a linear text at random into different parts and reassembling them into a new unpredictable and illogical “text” is not so far from what I have been doing with algorithms and computers. I am not using digital technology to celebrate it. I use it as an aesthetic tool, with a critical approach not so different from Burroughs’s own use of the random factor in his writings. The cumulative effect of control on the one hand and the rejection/denial of control on the other yield, passively, to the liberation of a new language. This is exactly what I do: by introducing the random factor in language, a new language emerges in confrontation with the control structures of the surrounding societies. To me, Burroughs’s texts are a perfect echo to our era. When it started to become popular, the Internet was hailed as a unique opportunity to change the world. Nowadays, it tends to appear as a gigantic mass surveillance infrastructure by which we are all controlled and under close scrutiny. The early utopian perspective has morphed into a control system as depicted by William Burroughs in his fiction.

 

How do you do it, concretely?

It is quite difficult to describe because the final work of art and its physical/aesthetic manifestation is not thought out when I start working on a new project. Form is the end product, not what I have in mind at the beginning. As a matter of fact, I work on a process meant to generate many accidents, deliberately using an excessive number of elements, texts, images, lines…

To start with, I drop a few lines of code, something very simple such as “Take that line by Burroughs and reproduce it”, and then I add other random parameters on and on, change letter sizes, make it bounce or rotate, and I let them reproduce themselves through simple loops. In brief, I insert the text into my software, change it, modify it and look at what pops up. I work like this, iteratively, excessively, erratically, until inspiring images emerge. I then put those aside and often rework them, some time later. That is why the creative process is so complex and so slow as I spent much time looking at the resulting images, recycling them, combining them. Sometimes, a very trivial element such as a tiny error, or an unexpected association that could have passed unnoticed, conveys a strong sensation, or catch the attention: here is the right image, the one I will finally keep.

 

And what about those spams you seem to be so fond of?

Oh yes, that is a real issue and I have been working with them for about ten years. They correspond to all this flux our email boxes are filled with on an everyday basis. They usually go straight to our bins but I treasure them. Interestingly enough, they represent something like 90% of the worldwide electronic traffic. Moreover they are generated by robots which would very much like to sound like human beings because if they do, their messages would precisely go to your email boxes and not directly dumped in your trash bins. Those bots use lots of technological tricks to sound like Humans, which reminds me of course of the Avant-Garde and experimental writings by Alfred Jarry, Marcel Duchamp or other representatives of lettrism: swopping or switching letters in a word, playing with typography, capitalizing print characters, generating spelling mistakes or cutting up textual fragments. All those efforts to convince other robots (firewalls and spam filters) that the messages in question have been written by human beings, and not produced by machines. It is the day-to-day struggle between Man and Machine-pretending-to-be-Man to produce more fakes, fake medicines, fake rumours, and genuine rip-offs. This is what our world of flux is currently about.

 

This flux principle you are talking about seems to be pretty high on your agenda. Why that?

According to me, flux is the result of the temporal transformation of an excess of data and information. And I use this flux to conjure up unstable and dynamic forms. Take Google images for instance, I collect hundreds of them, and I use them as any other kind of motif, putting them into motion, creating precisely a flux out of which some forms emerge. What is interesting then is the meta-image being produced, a meta-image that reveals or creates a meta-history, but also to what extent this flow of images questions our approach to images today, when the Internet generates so many images that we tend to ignore them more and more.

 

Optical illusions are important in most of your works. You do not deny it, and you even encourage viewers to play with the way they look at them, and from different perspectives. How do you feel about Op Art?

At first look, one might be tempted to think that I use the same means, and that my optical illusions are quite similar to those one may find in the works of Julio Le Parc or Carlos Cruz-Diez, for instance. I admire what these two artists do, but what I do is profoundly different, more in the line of a Sol LeWitt or an Yves Klein. If I play with the viewers’ multiple possible perspectives or even their physical movements in the gallery, it is to convey the idea that “nothing is true; everything is possible”, that any reality is incoherent, that we can misread reality, and that the word “right” can become “wrong”, or that a curve can become a straight line. When I use optical materials such as lenticular plates, it is not a tribute to Op Art. They simply enable me to revisit the way we look at things, and to question the very nature of images in the broad sense of the word (a line or a word can indeed be considered as images). I think the proliferation of images on the Internet demands such a questioning.

 

Now that you mention lenticulars, could you please elaborate on what use you make of them?

It has been one of my favourite materials since 2000. With them, I can pile up a huge number of images and create a surface full of erratic visual effects. By using much more information than necessary, I multiply the conditions prone to create visual incidents and save space for blurred, quivering or random signs to appear against the cold and almost too perfect digital environment.

The material allows me also to play with the viewer’s gaze. Depending on her/his position, the visual experience is never the same. Reading digital images has become more complex than it first appeared to be. The incessant circulation of images has made our way of looking at things more dynamic. Digital images are all around, and within us. The distance between our bodies and what we look at keeps on shrinking, so we are immersed and fall in the digital images. The lenticular material questions this new reading paradigm and brings about a physical and time-related experience: If the viewers don’t move their bodies, they won’t have access to visual perceptions.

 

You mentioned Yves Klein earlier and I am under the impression that your work has lately moved towards more monochromes. Am I right?

I mentioned him because the term “monochrome” immediately triggers off a mental association with this artist, probably because on top of the sheer visual pleasure that monochromes provide, they also reach philosophical significance with Klein. As far as I am concerned, monochromes help me to go straight to the point. As said before regarding lines, they send me back to what I consider essential in my creative process. The simpler the initial motif, the further I can push it to the limits and obtain as many surprises as possible. What is simpler that a monochrome surface?

 

How do you work with monochromes?

I reach the monochrome effect through a flickering process. For example, in order to reach blue monochromes, I use a flickering combination of three colours, white, black and blue. The outcome of an excessive repetition of sequences using these three colours does not produce a white piece, or a blue piece or a black piece, but a whole spectrum of uncontrollable colours, giving birth to unexpected blue forms.

When one sees a blue form in one of my works, one must bear in mind that I did not originally choose it. It is created by accident. The accident was intentional, right, but the result is accidental. As a matter of fact, I develop hypnosis-based systems, which put the viewers in different sensational environments such as vertigo or alacrity. The flickering technique is a classical feature of late modernism, be it Brion Gysin’s Dream Machine or Paul Sharits’s Flicker Films. It is based on a very simple opposition which, when pushed to its limits, yields to new fields of perception. In other words, working with monochromes takes me as far as I can get, and I use the materials to saturation point, until the creative gesture is somehow depleted.

 

Your art pieces come in black and white, but just as many in colour. How do you deal with colours in your art?

Colour is for me like a second skin than would cover the algorithmic process initially conceived in black and white. This additional layer of colour adds up complexity, depth and emotion to the art objects.

My relation to colour is based on the artificiality of digital spaces but also that of the technical colours which I use and which derive from black coal tar. One often forgets that pitch-dark coal tar was at the origin of the development of most chemical colouring agents in the 19th century.

 

And what led you to work in public spaces more regularly in the past few years?

Interacting with the public, outside museums or galleries, is very exciting and a source of pleasure. There is a point when you need to leave the studio behind and interact with the passers-by who do not always pay attention to the sculpture or the installation. Sometimes something happens, sometimes nothing, and that is precisely the point.

For my Text(e)~Fil(e)s installation at the Palais-Royal in Paris in 2010, for instance, I remember that I had carefully thought about the width of the 200-meter floor ribbon, exactly half of the width of the actual Gallery so that visitors could choose where they wanted to walk on. It was quite fascinating and amusing to see how passers-by responded: some were very careful not to tread on it and read the texts with great attention, and others did not hesitate to ride on it with their bikes or rollers simply because it was much more comfortable that on the historical pavement!

It is also a matter of confrontations with so many other constraints, such as financial supports, the genius of the place, residents’ habits, safety regulations… All those constraints are also big incentives to reshuffle the cards. When I was working for the outdoors piece that hangs at the School of Architecture in Strasbourg in 2016, I collaborated with a glass manufacturer whose industrial processes have sometimes inspired later art works I did. While one of the glass panels was being put into place, an accident occurred and it made me think seriously about cracks! Lately, I have been working with glass for my other works as well. I use several layers of glass and I crack some of them. Because of its transparency, glass conveys a feeling of timelessness and crackles, by contrast, seem to crystalize Time’s accidents.

 

When you do outdoors sculptures, you often use glass. Why this material?

On the one hand, I love glass, a noble and time-enduring material. I can now handle ceramic inks that have been used for centuries on stained-glassed windows in cathedrals and that is a real asset to preserve public artworks in a good condition.

On the other, and it is even more important than its longevity, glass fascinates and inspires me so much that I love working with it. A work made of glass has the capacity to play with light and colour effects, depending on weather changes. I have installed a glass piece, Irrational Geometrics, in collaboration with the architect Gil Percal in Perth Australia through which you can admire the reflections of the entire contemporary city parts but also the on-going traffics of passers-by, bikers and car drivers. All these reflections work in fact like a prism that echoes the Aborigines’ songlines. Nothing beats glass when it comes to contextualize a work of art.

 

If somebody unfamiliar with your work asked you what it is you do/ what you actually do, what would you say?

I would say that my artwork explores our relation to Time. The time of digital machines, regulated by their pure presence and their immediacy, is transforming our future, but also our past. To me, the real issue at stake is not the unlikely replacement of men by machines but more concretely, the fact that the time of digital machines is superseding ours. It is my contention that the role of today’s artists is to consider such upheavals.

After all, Time is a form of space. Burroughs used to say “Image is Time”; and it must be said that Man did create images before inventing writing, and that the numberless images of our contemporary world preceded the characters used to communicate with computers. It is up to living artists like me to hack the time lines imposed by digital systems, bots and other forms of Artificial Intelligence! Questioning the world we live in, whatever its potentials or hazards, is definitely much more fun if we use the tools that it has designed itself.