Émilie Brout & Maxime Marion
LES NOUVEAUX CHERCHEURS D'OR
Text by Domenico Quaranta
17/09/2015 - 31/10/2015
22,48 m² is proud to invite you to Les Nouveaux chercheurs d'or, a solo show by artists Émilie Brout & Maxime Marion. The show features six recent works never exhibited, developed between 2014 and 2015, and in some cases still in progress. The exhibition questions the relationship between aesthetics and perceived value, through a research on materiality and virtuality, the boundaries between physical and digital, where the presented materials are not always what they seem, and where value does not necessarily emerges where we expected.
The pieces presented address the issue of the apparent poverty of amateur images that are flooding the internet as well as economic and speculative problems of the art market: the generative video Regulus, constantly evolving and only composed of photographs found online via an algorithm, is sold by weight; in Ghosts of your souvenir, seemingly innocuous and heterogeneous tourist photographs prove to be a collection of self-portraits; Untitled SAS, first artwork to be registered in France’s Trade Register, is a real company whose shares can be freely traded, influencing its value; the false passport of Nakamoto (The Proof) allows a foray into the sulfurous world of darknets and Bitcoin e-money; Les Nouveaux chercheurs d’or, from which the show borrows its name, stand a typology of golden samples obtained on the internet for free and reveal the ramifications and distribution networks that allowed their existence; and Return of the Broken Screens reactivates technological garbage, raising the question of obsolescence.
The show will be accompanied by an essay of the art critic and curator Domenico Quaranta, that we are previewing in this communication. The artists will be present and will share love, smiles and good beer.
In the Oxford English Dictionary, value is primarily defined as “the regard that something is held to deserve; the importance, worth, or usefulness of something”. In the Merriam-Webster, “a fair return or equivalent in goods, services, or money for something exchanged” comes first, underlying the prominence of economics in the age of capitalism. Both definitions, however, agree on one thing: setting a value for something is more a matter of agreement than objectivity. How can you say that a return is “fair”? That something is regarded as much as it deserves? In today’s post-capitalist, post-digital, post-whatever societies, moreover, both these definitions look outdated. Today, value is much more unstable, much more ephemeral, much more liquid than this. And it’s, more often than not, unfair. How much is worth one minute of labor? How much is worth the future? How much is worth Greece? How much is worth a company trading in information? How much is worth a single piece of information? How much is worth attention? How much is worth a work of art? Each of these things, the very same thing, may vary on a scale from 0 to 1 billion something.
The value of information, attention and works of art is so unstable that, very properly, they have become currencies themselves.
The meaning of value in a post-whatever era, the mass abundance of images - from amateur image production to professional images to algorithmically generated images - and the consequent shift of the artist from production to post-production - and from the creation of works to the generation of formats - are all recurring topics in the recent work of Émilie Brout and Maxime Marion. Since 2009 the French couple has been focusing on projects that, renovating the modernist language of film, make an extensive use of appropriated content from the web, which is freed from its status of meaningless, apparently valueless data floating in the information networks to be rearranged in complex, algorithmically generated, sometimes interactive narratives, or into powerful, iconic images.
In this context, the foundation of Untitled SAS (2015) may look like a smart yet radical move out of this line of research, while it is, in fact, a further step in the same direction, though less visual and more conceptual. In French, SAS stands for “société par actions simplifiées”, the equivalent of a registered limited company (LTD or INC in English). Untitled SAS is an immaterial work of art whose medium is a business company, with “work of art” as corporate purpose and with a capital open to everybody interested in buying shares at their own price. The starting capital of the company is set to 1,00 € (the minimum legally possible), and 10,000 shares are made available. With a freely negotiable capital, the company allows each collector/shareholder to buy and sell shares at the price he set, thus influencing the company’s overall value (displayed on a dedicated website).
In order to set up the company, the artists worked with one of the largest and oldest lawyer’s office of Paris, Granrut Avocats, who had to resolve many new legal paradoxes for its official registration in the French Trade and Companies Register. A similar gesture was performed, years ago, by the Austrian-Swiss collective etoy, who registered themselves as an actual company in Switzerland, with making art as its corporate purpose. But while etoy, in the early years of the internet, were embracing - in an over-affirmative way - the utopian dream of the new economy in order to set them free from the rules of the art market, Émilie Brout and Maxime Marion are more interested in giving birth to a useless yet fully functional machine that performs and mirrors the ways of working of the current art market, where the value of artworks looks less rooted in the material value of the object or in the cultural value of the work, and more in the ability of a few disruptive characters to manipulate it at their will. At the same time, however, as a socially owned, immaterial artwork with a starting value set to the minimum and able to increase with the help of a community of collectors/shareholders, Untitled SAS is the archetypal work of art: like a medieval church, it mirrors and represents the power in charge, while at the same time being available for the larger society. It also bears some spiritual connotations, recalling the Zones of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility (1959) by Yves Klein: the empty space exchanged for gold is replaced by the empty shell of a company turned into shares. Finally, it is the perfect portrait of companies like Facebook, that started valueless and evolved into modern golden calfs.
In such companies, value is mostly generated by their ability to attract users, to welcome user generated content that draws in other users, and to capitalize on their private data: which turns amateur cultural production and privacy into two key issues to understand the present day. In this context, Émilie Brout and Maxime Marion often become modern gold diggers involved into what David Joselit called “an Epistemology of Search”. This can be seen in many works on show, including Regulus, Ghosts of Your Souvenir (2014 - ongoing), Les Nouveaux chercheurs d'or and Return of the Broken Screens (2015).
Regulus is a generative animation based on a program that browses websites like Flickr, Instagram and Google Images in real time, in search of pictures that respond to some formal criteria then used to organize the visual flow. While the focus of their interest - the presence of round shapes - takes center stage, the main subject of these pictures - and the reason why they have been shared in the first place - fades in the background without disappearing completely, being perceived as a background noise or a flow of subconscious images. The piece also shares with Untitled SAS an experimental attitude toward how cultural value is translated into market value: instead of being sold as a unique or an edition, this ever evolving piece is chunked into small samples and sold by weight.
Like Regulus, Ghosts of Your Souvenir is an ongoing collection of found amateur pictures where the main subject becomes secondary when the viewer understands the organizing principle of the collection: the presence, in the background, of Émilie or Maxime (or both), posing for a photographer who’s not interested in them. In order to develop the project, the artists stood for one or more days in a chosen place of touristic interest - on the Rialto Bridge in Venice, or in front of Notre Dame de Paris - trying to be featured in as many tourist photos as possible; and later spent hours on image sharing sites like Instagram and Flickr, looking for images taken that day in that place. The collection thus becomes an outsourced self-portrait, that takes advantage of the ubiquity of the camera eye, the seamlessness of sharing and the informational nature of digital images, all equipped with their metatags.
If Regulus and Ghosts of Your Souvenir deal with the explosion of amateur cultural production, other works in the show are a take on online economics. Les Nouveaux chercheurs d'or is an ongoing collection of free golden samples of golden products sold on the internet. Gold is a universal symbol of value, and a way to turn any prosaic, mass produced item into something shiny and desirable. By collecting these samples, Émilie Brout and Maxime Marion are interested in the conflict between their luxurious look, their free nature and the complexity of the economics that produced them, that they research in depth, trying to provide as much information as possible about the collected item.
This interest in the background story of the collected pieces is shared by Return of the Broken Screens, based on a collection of broken display technologies. Commercially speaking, tech items are valuable when they work, and totally valueless when broken. A small incident can turn an expensive gadget into something you are lucky if you don’t have to spend money to get rid of it. But a small incident can also be an interesting story; and a damaged display is just another kind of display. That’s why Émilie and Maxime research into these stories and create customized abstract videos for these displays, responding to their cracks and choosing shapes and colors according to their ability to activate a given part of the screen - fully aware that the decay will go on and that the work in the present form will be short lived.
Actually, most of the works by Émilie Brout and Maxime Marion have a performative nature that makes the work displayed in the gallery appear as the temporary, inevitably limited instantiation of an ongoing process, rather than a finished piece. This is literally true for Nakamoto (The Proof), 2014 - 2015, an attempt to produce a portrait of the legendary founder of Bitcoin using the economic and technical system he gave birth to as a “brush”. Bitcoin is a virtual currency widely used on “darknets” like the Tor network, and allowing to perform online transactions anonymously. Despite (or thanks to?) its virtual nature, during the financial recession its value has grown up constantly, and it has been perceived as a safe-haven asset. With an estimated fortune of several hundred million euros, Satoshi Nakamoto still lives in the grey zone between fiction and reality, thanks to his ability to preserve his identity. After collecting all the available information about Nakamoto, Émilie Brout and Maxime Marion browsed Tor in order to get in touch with a group of passport forgers, probably based in Cambodia, and commissioned them a fake passport of Nakamoto, in the attempt to produce an evidence of his existence using the technology he created. After getting a scan of the passport for validation, they paid the second instalment and the passport was shipped on June 7, 2014, but it was never delivered to them, the scan still being the only evidence of its existence. Unavailable as an artifact, as a story Nakamoto (The Proof) works as a research into the folds of contemporary economics, and a tribute to a modern myth that was both able to reinvent value as well as to preserve himself to be turned into a product.