He’s one of the pioneers in virtual and digital art. He tackles the question of intangibility and computer-led logic. Hybridity, generativeness and networking are at the heart of his research… An hour in the company of Miguel Chevalier, an observer of the flows dear to our contemporary society.
It’s at La Fabrika, his big studio in Ivry-sur-Seine (and so named in homage to another famous studio), that Miguel Chevalier designs his works. All around, you’ll see prototypes, 3D prints, projectors and projections… This spring, his studio is a hive of activity as he gets set for several solo shows (at the submarine base in Bordeaux and a double event in London, at the Mayor and Wilmotte Galleries). Miguel Chevalier is also taking part in major group exhibitions, namely “Artistes & Robots” at the Grand Palais, and “AI Musiqa” at the Philharmonie de Paris.
The exhibition “Digital Abysses”, recently launched at the submarine base in Bordeaux, with ten installations and a hundred or so works spread out over 3500 square metres, is one of your largest to date…
That’s right, this is my biggest exhibition to date. The submarine base is an unusual site, constructed at the end of World War II. I didn’t want to illustrate the memories of the place, but rather, work on the relationship with water and the great depths and abysses in which U-boats plunged. The large printed fabric Atlantide (25 x 9 metres) opens the exhibition, emerging as the floor of the base’s first pool. Then, we arrive at the bunker’s entrance – a spot that’s all the more interesting as it immerses visitors in darkness and comprises numerous spaces on different scales. I drew inspiration from plankton and all sorts of aquatic microorganisms, such as radiolarians and protozoa that are observable under microscopes, as well as strange bioluminescent creatures. When we observe them, we realise that they’re an untold source of wealth, which really inspired me.
Certain pieces are seen here for the first time, others are updates of earlier works such as L’Origine du Monde.
My installations change every time they’re presented. Firstly because they adjust to the scale of every new venue. I also integrate new textures to the software, which allow the generation of new visuals. These works get richer and more complex as I show them.
For this exhibition, you’ve signed a partnership with Surfrider Foundation Europe, an association that supports the safeguarding of oceans. Your work has an organic aspect because growth is one of your key concepts… Can we detect an ecological bent in your work?
I’m not a diehard ecologist, but we’re all conscious that we’re heading towards irreversible catastrophe if we don’t change our modes of production and consumption. The NGO Surfrider Foundation Europe works on preserving oceans at a time when a plastic continent is floating in the Pacific. As an artist, it’s my duty to point out these flagrant realities, and art has the power to forge consciences. Even if I work on artificiality, nature is a fundamental source of inspiration for me, as well as for many other creators.
The polarity between nature and artifice plays a key role in your work, namely in Fractal Flowers and your virtual seeds – programmes that generate imaginary gardens whose size and number can be controlled by adjusting parameters. Chance is an element that contributes to the growth of nature, just as it does to that of your programme.
The process of life, or rather its simulation, interests me for several reasons. We live in a world which increasingly simulates all types of phenomena. These simulations are supported by the development of artificial intelligence, which is very advanced in certain specific domains of application, but not yet intelligent in the primary sense of the term. Artificial intelligence is intelligent when it is fed with data. The same goes for my software: the larger the database, the more graphically richer the work, the more subtle the effects of growth.
It’s true that over time, your images have become more complex…
This is due to the expansion of my software’s databases, but also due to the work of my team, with computer specialists like Cyrille Henry, Claude Micheli and Nicolas Gaudelet, thanks to their technical skills and technological watch – on graphics cards, new sensors, etc. Their ongoing watch allows me to stay in sync with technological evolutions and to carry out projects that exit from the norm, like the Origin of the World Bubble 2018 on Oxford Circus, London, projected onto an eleven-meter-diameter sphere. Without this watch and the use of cutting-edge tools, there was no way we could have accomplished the project. This is one of the interesting aspects of my practice: finding solutions for the implementation of concepts and ideas.
Do you see yourself as an artist with a studio?
What I’m responsible for is the origins of projects, their design, their artistic aspect and their translation into space.
The history of digital art is crossed by a collaborative spirit, a consequence of its high degree of technicality, from the Experiments in Art and Technologies in the 1960s to collectives of net artists… Today, a collective vision continues with open-source technology. Do you use the latter?
Yes, we use open-source software such as Claude Micheli’s Unity or Cyrille Henry’s Pure Data. It sometimes takes between one to two years of development to create such software. Many tests are run at the studio to optimise and present the works to the public. Behind this open-source software there is a community of specialists who help to make things advance more quickly thanks to the sharing of data…
The digital world, composed of files and programmes, has a modularity that confers an “arborescent” aspect to your work: a 3D file can exist in different forms (such as a sculpture, a screen, a projection…); a programme grows every time it’s updated…
All the projects echo with and penetrate one another. When Cyrille Henry and I worked on Fractal Flowers – that is, creating 3D models on a 2D screen –, we realised that we could stop the growth of one of the Fractal Flowers seeds and extract the corresponding 3D file. It was then possible to give this file a material form, with the help of a 3D printer. All this opens up new perspectives, a coming and going between the real and the virtual. This is also what contributes to the expressive richness of the digital medium.
The digital world is fascinating in that it prolongs the history of images without referents, after abstract painting or sculpture. It goes even further, via generativeness or interactivity that induce a probable modification in the status of the image, which doesn’t represent so much as it presents, with an existence of its own…
We’re no longer in a linear universe like that of a film or recorded video, where reading goes from point A to Z, before going back to the start again. With the digital world, we can enter into artificial life processes like my virtual gardens that self-generate, change, and act, depending on the visitor’s movements… None of this is possible with the other artistic mediums that we already know.
So this is what’s special about the digital medium?
Yes, but that’s not all. There are also scaling effects: digital technology can be deployed on smartphones just as they can take on the urban scale.
Your work started off at the end of the 1980s with the appearance of the desktop computer and the improvement of graphics cards, while the calculation capacities of machines from the 2000s allowed your works to change in scale… What’s the next step?
There are several interesting things to point out. The calculation capacities of today’s computers allow the creation of animations in real time, which also increase interactivity possibilities. Laser projectors, with upgraded endurance, definition and colorimetry, are also very promising. Today, a whole range of scales can be explored, from 4K screens to multiple large-format projections. All this urges me to go further and further into immersion. We’re still limited by costs, but creating a multisensory space has become entirely possible, for example the In-Out / Paradis artificiels installation that I presented in 2017 at the Domaine de Chaumont-sur-Loire.
What do you seek from immersiveness?
An experience that can rouse emotions. Let’s take the example of Monet, a true great in my mind on several levels, for his relationship to time, variation and light. Monet also opened the way towards immersiveness with his Water Lilies, now at the Orangerie. This desire to bring the spectator into the painting is what I continue with images and light, following on from artists like James Turrell or Julio Le Parc.
You see yourself less as breaking off with than continuing the history of art, which is also an important source of images and motifs in your work…
At the end of the 1970s, when I started my career, we witnessed the end of the avant-gardes, the logic of painting deconstruction, and we gradually reached its zero point. After that, in my opinion, it became necessary to explore new territories. No one was interested in the digital field in the 1980s; instead, the spirit of the times was more about a return to painting with “bad painting”, free figuration, the Italian Trans-avant-garde and German neo-expressionism… Digital artists like me were completely counterculture, but I chose to commit myself to this path. Time has proven me right.
In the 1980s, resistance was strong.
Yes, very strong, but as for the case of any new medium. Before the digital field, there were photos, then videos, that met the same opposition. Today, the digital medium is more widely accepted as a creation tool. It is becoming a medium like any other, complementary to others. And it has a transversal character that allows it to embrace all of them.
Today, does the digital medium enjoy the recognition that it deserves in art?
No, there’s still a lot to be done. The digital is still marginalised. But it’s part of our environment and should be better integrated into the art market. This requires more openness from everyone – curators, critics, gallerists, and also artists. Digital art needs to exit the field in which it’s confined, such as festivals, and be developed more in museums, galleries and public spaces. The exhibition “Artistes & Robots”, on at the Grand Palais until July, is a new stage in recognition by a wider public. The exhibition was organised in Paris following its great success in Astana, Kazakhstan, and it’s been expanded, with double the space, but above all new artists and approaches, such as artificial intelligence and the augmented body… The general public needs to bear in mind that what’s happening isn’t new, but that digital art has a genealogy that dates back to the end of the 1950s – an era when artists kicked off the first reflections without knowing the role that computers would take up one day. Pioneers like Nicolas Schöffer, Nam June Paik, Vera Molnar and many others.
Your work deepens certain upheavals. I’m thinking of the changing status of the artist (with the issue of paternity and generativeness), that of the work (indefinite) and the visitor (transitioning from contemplation to play)…
As far as generativeness goes, the work creates itself infinitely and surpasses its creator, who is nonetheless the originator of the protocol that allows it to develop without ever returning to its original state. A completely open work, in the sense understood by Umberto Eco. I also create finite works, namely 3D models. The digital offers new potentialities beyond interactivity.
“Digital Abysses”, until 20 May. Submarine base, Boulevard Alfred-Daney, Bordeaux. www.bordeaux.fr/o271/base-sousetmarine
“Artistes & Robots”, until 9 July. Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais, 3 avenue du Général Eisenhower, Paris 75008. www.grandpalais.fr
“Al Musiqa”, until 19 August. Cité de la Musique – Philharmonie de Paris, 221 avenue Jean-Jaurès, Paris 75019. www.philharmoniedeparis.fr
“Ubiquity 1”, until 1 June. The Mayor Gallery, 21 Cork Street, London. www.mayorgallery.com
“Ubiquity 2”, until 15 June. The Wilmotte Gallery at Lichfield Studios, 133 Oxford Gardens, London. www.wilmotte.fr/fr/galeries-w/londres