BY Vivian Sky Rehberg in Features | 01 MAR 11
Featured in
Issue 137

Case Study: Gilles Barbier

Gilles Barbier speaks about his work in progress that will be shown at the Centre Pompidou in Paris later this year.

BY Vivian Sky Rehberg in Features | 01 MAR 11

The work in progress 'Clones' in the studio of Gilles Barbier, Marseille (2011)

Born in Vanuatu in the South Pacific, where he lived until he was 20, Gilles Barbier now lives and works in Marseille, France. Since the early 1990s he has worked in media that range wildly from intricate drawings to life-size wax figures. In his recent solo exhibition at Galerie Georges-Philippe & Nathalie Vallois in Paris, ‘There is No Moon Without a Rocket’ (2010), he created a variety of hypothetical worlds including ‘The World as Tree House’, ‘The World as Thong’ and ‘Asshole World’ – all of which are characterized by their obsessiveness and dark humour.

You have recently decided to ‘reinitialize’ your work. What exactly does that mean?

I first ‘initialized’ my work during the early 1990s by conceptualizing a ‘production machine’, which moved a pawn on a draughtboard of my own invention using a random process. Each of the squares on the draughtboard contained an idea for a work or a performance project, in all possible mediums. I basically put down everything I could think of, unadulterated. Obviously, the board quickly bested my physical capacity to play on it; my ideas took off in all directions and the erratic progression of my work confused people. But I didn’t give in. The pawn turned into a clone, which then multiplied. I was very influenced by Luke Reinhardt’s 1971 novel The Dice Man but also by Philip K. Dick; by the 19th-century French literary movement ‘Les Arts Incoherérents’ (The Incoherents); by comic books; and by the conceptual potential of computer technology and cybernetics. I think I was looking for something akin to an uninhibited production machine. I wanted to undertake a long and ascetic performance that could distance me from myself as much as possible. It was extremely constructive, pleasurable and liberating. I could generate meaning out of severe constraints, as well as gags and visual noise. However, deep down, I was wondering about the possible extent of this little game. Would the destruction of authorship, the massive increase in possibilities, and the idiocy and offhandedness of my position lead to a new form of artistic identity? One that is not founded on recognition, style or coherence, but on the elegance that a computer programme for artificial life might engender, once it had given a computer the capacity to make life change, reproduce, evolve or die? I very much like the idea of being this computer.

And yet you are not a computer. So what happened?

After a while, the original game took on a life of its own and I abandoned it because I no longer needed it. My 1995 installation Comment mieux guider notre vie au quotidien (How to Better Guide Our Everyday Life) deals with this. For this piece I let my clones run rampant, like vehicles given the task to explore the distances that separate the genotype from phenotypes, or what is genetically coded and what can be observed in a living organism. This dérive, which might appear superfluous, very quickly seemed to me like an alternative to commenting about the world, about art, or about myself. I returned to the logic of taking a stroll around my studio. From the beginning, I knew that this stroll through landscapes that were created out of statements and art works traced a path that formed something like a motif – a Vanuatu sand drawing or a Eulerian graph [which links points without ever returning to them] – and for a long time, perhaps for the past 15 years or so, I’ve been dreaming of doing it all over again. So, we are not really talking about a remake, but rather a splitting off and unfolding. Picture someone who splits off into two while they are out for a walk. While one of them continues tranquilly on his way, the other decides to retrace his steps, but not necessarily in the same direction nor by linking up all of the points of his journey in the same way. Since there is no precise goal, he builds a machine that will decide the new logic of the stroll. I am currently building this machine, and am calling it The Game of Life. I’m having a lot of fun with it, but unlike my first production machine, which left my studio, this one will be exhibited at the Centre Pompidou in Paris as soon as it’s finished. That’s a bit more serious, don’t you agree?

How did you determine how and where to start retracing your steps?

Very simply. In fact, this goes back almost 20 years to the beginning of my career as an artist. One night I threw a dice with the following options in mind: if I rolled one to three then I’d quit the game, that is, I’d stop making art and dedicate my life to something else – gardening, cooking or mathematics. If it landed on numbers four to six then I would become an artist. It landed on six. I still have the slip of paper on which I jotted all this down, with the date ‘11 June 1992’ written very small on the lower right-hand corner. This is the beginning of this segment, the edge of the map, and the splitting I mentioned earlier concerns all of the work produced from this point on.

Have you also determined an end point?

Not really. This dispositif, which encourages walker A to carry on strolling, continues to supply walker B’s map with different trajectories and landscapes. It’s a classic case of retroaction. Those who have a basic understanding of computer science will understand why the draughtboard of The Game of Life is a three-dimensional cellular automaton [a collection of cells on a grid that evolve based on a set of rules according to the states of neighbouring cells]: it’s growing! Besides, I am completely indifferent to questions of endings or achievements. I don’t have many ideas on the subject and prefer to allow death, which is inevitable anyway, to conclude the sessions. In the end, all that it is going to do is provide another little date.

Are you making copies of previous works?

No, it’s slightly different from that. All of my works depart from a precise statement. Here it’s the original statement that is being reactivated, not the work the statement led to. Take L’hospice (Nursing Home, 2002), for example, which was based on the following statement: ‘Superheroes represented in bodies aged to correspond to their copyright date.’ If The Game of Life forced me to remake this work today, I would certainly use different superheroes than the ones I used before and they would all have necessarily aged ten years. Given that the number of variables is not limited to those I just mentioned, I could eventually use other techniques, other mediums, and even the title could change… So we would find ourselves with two phenotypes obtained from the same programme – or genetic code, if I dare say. But, in the end, as many phenotypes exist as there is energy to produce them. If I had infinite energy, I’d keep each work in a state of perpetual reconfiguration.

Translated by Vivian Rehberg

Vivian Sky Rehberg is a course director of the Master of Fine Art at the Piet Zwart Institute, Rotterdam, the Netherlands. She lives in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.