2. Artistic background
cONcErn evolved from our previous research and, in particular, can be linked to our projects Exit-Wall and ParaSites. Both projects are informed by our interest in the relationship between an artwork and its environment, the latter understood in a wider sense to include its ecological, historical, economical, social, geographic, architectural, and technological dimensions.
Exit-Wall was developed over several stages; it emerged in different forms and contexts between 2009 and 2012. The pivotal artefact of this project is a modular wall structure, entitled Exit-Wall (2010), which is assembled from about two hundred exit lights. Usually such lights are used in public spaces to indicate an emergency escape route to the outside. In contrast, we employ the exit signs like bricks in a wall to build a barrier within a space. For us, the paradoxical nature of this assemblage – originating from the contradiction between the linguistic meaning of its constituting parts (the exit signs) and the physical obstacle it poses in reality – evokes the inherent ambivalences of different real-life contexts. For instance, one could argue that it points to the problematics of predominant economic politics, in particular the obstinate insistence on growth being the only solution, or the only exit, to the current crisis – whereas a radical rethinking of inhabiting the world in a more sustainable way might be more appropriate.
However, while Exit-Wall might be able to catalyse critical perspectives in different contexts, its eco-political critique, in particular, also highlights an inherent contradiction between the work’s symbolic value and its material reality: while on show, Exit-Wall constantly consumes an amount of electricity that is equivalent to three vacuum cleaners working at full power, and the production and maintenance of Exit-Wall has engendered a large amount of surplus and waste materials (all of which we felt obliged to keep in storage): 200 acrylic glass sheets, 200 multi-sockets, 400 neon tubes, 800 plastic washers, numerous cardboard boxes, wires, plastic bags, and so on; and not to forget the transport: 10,000 miles in an old diesel van to show the wall in Poland, Slovenia, Croatia, Paris, and London …
Ultimately, taking into account its concrete physical existence, Exit-Wall seems unable to maintain a critical distance to the politico-environmental problems at which it might be pointing. This realisation greatly informed the conception of our solo show Strategies of Deception at Tenderpixel Gallery, London, in December 2012. The exhibition was composed as an experiment that would critically take stock of our artistic activity. It was an attempt to account for and make creative use of the considerable amount of surplus materials and energy that have been engendered for Exit-Wall to exist. These varied remains, entitled Collateral Damage, were set up in the lower gallery (figure 2) and the gallery window (figure 3), conditioning the environment and reception of the pivotal work Exit-Wall (2010), installed in the upper gallery (figures 4 and 5), and vice versa. The implicit question posed by this exhibition – whether it might be possible, or even desirable, to resolve the inherent contradictions between art’s material and symbolic value – is also central to our project cONcErn. By creating an infrastructure that takes into account the material and logistical reality of artistic practice – that is, production, exhibition, maintenance, transport, disposal, recycling, and such like – cONcErn aims to establish a relationship between art and its environment in an integral, ‘biotopic’ manner.
The second line of research fundamental to the conceptual development of cONcErn is our ongoing project ParaSites. ParaSites comprises a series of interventions in urban space that have evolved from our idea to create sculptural forms that are parasitic. We treat the term ‘parasite’ both literally and metaphorically, and are primarily inspired by parasitological research as well as Michel Serres’s philosophical treatment of the term, expounded in The Parasite. Considering its different significations in French – biological, social, and ‘communicational’ (i.e., the noise of a signal) – Serres uses the parasite to extrapolate ideas about human relations, society, history, and communication while underlining its destabilising and transformative powers. With this in mind, we explore the polysemic notion of the parasite as an integrated conceptual framework and methodological tool for context-specific sculptural interventions in urban space, with a particular focus on its technological and ecological dimension.
Concretely, we seek to take resource in the richness of parasitic qualities – such as inconspicuousness, integration, expansion, interference, mobility, opportunism – in order to ‘profit’ from the vast realm of potential hosts (their physical properties, histories, current functions, and urban contexts) as well as adapt to different socio-cultural and economic situations for the interventions (e.g., exhibition budget, relationship both with organisers and with public, etc.). We will illustrate our employment of parasitic strategies with two examples, the first being the initial intervention that sparked off the overall project. It took place in 2009 at the Fondation Avicenne in Paris, an edifice designed by architect Claude Parent in 1968. The building’s ‘body’ was constructed from top to bottom, suspended within an exterior ‘skeleton’ of six colossal iron pillars (figure 6) – a detail that retained our attention.
Confronted with the impressive ‘dead’ mass of the building, we thought about the behaviour of parasites that, most naturally, infest and profit from a vulnerable body. We devised little electronic ‘parasites’ that attached themselves magnetically to an iron skeleton (figures 7 and 8). The parasites prodded their host with their electromechanical stings, making the monumental architecture resonate in a subdued manner. The impacts also caused brief detachments of the parasites from the surface allowing them to jitter slowly downward along the pillars. In this way, the parasites followed the same top-to-bottom trajectory that had been conceived by the architect for the suspension of the building’s body and, in a figural sense, reunited the conceptual strength and the structural decay of the edifice in a descending movement.
While the above intervention was conceived for a specific site, or host body, subsequent manifestations of ParaSites have also been inspired by specific contexts that are not necessarily linked to a single site. Moreover, concerns about the technological and ecological dimensions of urban life have played an increasingly dominant role in the overall project conception. This applies, for instance, to Antibodies, a mobile and modular set-up expanding in urban space. Each ‘antibody’ consists of an alarm siren powered by a solar panel. The use of solar energy provides a certain degree of autonomy for the antibodies, rendering them sensitive to the light conditions of the surroundings. To be more precise, the noise of each antibody’s alarm siren is modulated in real time by the amount of light falling on its solar panel. The antibodies also comprise magnetic feet, permitting instantaneous attachment to metal supports, both stationary and mobile, such as traffic signs, lampposts, scaffolding, cars, bikes, and such like (figures 10 and 11). Thus, Antibodies generates an infernal ‘siren song’ in flux, which transforms, and is transformed by, the urban environment. The initial motivation for Antibodies was to occupy the new sonic niches provided by near-silent vehicles and to ‘compete’ with so-called Acoustic Vehicle Alerting Systems that are currently being developed for electric and hybrid cars (figure 9). For us, the apparent paradox of (re)introducing sound to near-silent vehicles is symptomatic of the vicious circle created by prevailing technology-oriented mindsets, where the solution to one problem is likely to create a chain of new problems, each making it more difficult to address the original one. In this light, Antibodies might be considered an autoimmune response by urban environments oversaturated with technological inventions that promise fast and easy solutions to complex societal and ecological issues.
To summarise, for the proposed parasitic artworks to exist and to acquire (symbolic) meaning they have to feed from the host context (sometimes even literally) and, in return, the artworks might have a potential impact on the host milieu. This inextricable link between artwork and context (milieu) is also the focus of cONcErn. However, while ParaSites is interested in the production of artworks as a function of their context, one might say that cONcErn is interested in the creation of a context as a function of the artworks it hosts.
Go to next section: 3. Theoretical framework and intentions