Documenting Salience and Virtuality in Pierre Huyghe’s LACMA Retrospective

In Open Sky, cultural theorist Paul Virilio triangulates the space-time dichotomy with the relativity of “light.” The light of the televisual apparatus, he argues, accelerates space and time, and places contemporary society on a trajectory toward a crash. I started my DH project with Virilio’s prescient but pessimistic philosophy in order to propose a departure from it. Unlike Virilio, the artists and architects I feature do not lament the crisis to which the technologies of light-speed may be complicit. Instead, they produce spaces that renegotiate the visual as the operative signifier, using digital interventions to exchange spectacularity for more sensuous modes of spatial experience. The virtuality of art lies in the spaces it enacts, not the spaces it represents. When the structure starts to shudder, seeing is less an important than feeling for vibrations.

In January, under the auspices of the Digital Humanities Fellowship, I visited Los Angeles to conduct research at a number of cultural institutions in the area. At that point, I had already identified electronic artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer and the architecture duo of Liz Diller and Ricardo Scofidio as practitioners of interest to my project. I was in the midst of writing my text’s introduction when I encountered the mid-career retrospective exhibition of conceptual artist Pierre Huyghe at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Throughout his work, Huyghe’s media objects inspire prospective futures and fictionalized pasts. Each presents a open-ended situation, composed of multimedia and living elements; according to LACMA, “Huyghe creates films, installations, and events that blur fact and fiction, reinvent rituals of social engagement, and use the exhibition model as a site for playful experimentation.” They condition time itself, engendering a temporal arrhythmia that collapses potential pasts and futures into a multiplicitous present that extrudes deeply through its virtual dimensions. Art critic Amelia Barikin, who wrote the first monograph to focus exclusively on Huyghe’s work, terms this multiplicity as “parallel presents.” My experience in the exhibition space flirted with intensity, activated multivariate dimensions of spatiality, and stacked layers of mediation and computer programmed elements to produce for me an intense spatial affect—in short, Huyghe’s work performed in exactly the way I had begun to articulate in the incipient texts I was writing.

Upon returning to Massachusetts, and in order to place him contextually, I studied up on his work. I read interviews he had given, articles written about him, and reviews of the LACMA show. But the more I read, the more the affect of the space I had encountered eroded. From the texts about the artist emerged a coherent, singular story. This seemed antithetical to the work itself. In telling and retelling his intent behind specific pieces, the body of literature about the artist elided the contours of the virtual that these pieces actually enacted. If I had positioned the LACMA show in terms of these research materials, and not my first-hand experience of it, I might have made a convincing argument for how some of the individual works featured in the exhibition performed virtuality—but the relationality that made the space so powerful for me would be missing.

By contrast, I encountered the spaces of Diller + Scofidio and Lozano-Hemmer that I wrote about exclusively through their documentary reenactments. I have had, as a result, a much easier time identifying their salient contributions to my discussion of the virtual. But interrogating this idea of salience, or that which is “most noticeable or important,” is among the most important insights I have had into the space’s virtuality. A space’s salient qualities are the ones that are most likely to persist when it is transposed onto another medium (e.g., an art space into a written analysis of it; a territory into its map). To valorize a space’s salience is to undermine its virtuality. I have made much effort to abandon the distinction between “original” and “copy” in my project. That the salient narrative persists is not problematic to the spaces I discuss, but it stands as an imperative to vitalize that which goes unnoticed, the virtual detritus that lives deep inside the depths of reality.

Huyghe’s work is textual and documentary from the outset: his oeuvre is exceptional because it acts and reenacts the same conceptual spaces, surfacing new dimensions each time. By understanding all experience as an annotation of space rather than a derivative mediation, his documentation strategies celebrate subjective diversity and virtual complexity. The LACMA retrospective exposes architectural vulnerability—not any physical instability, but rather the vulnerability of the named space that the gallery metonymically defines—in order to open itself to its outside and become something else.

The pieces I discuss in my project may be access points to the technological sublime, but outside of the experience of art, how can we continue to reinvest our lives with virtuality? The digital screen attenuates the virtual—in order to locate the rewards of virtual depth, we must reach through the screen, move with intensity, and revive the dream of cyberspace. This is not to suggest that we need new technologies—rather, we may benefit more from finding new ways of using the tools we already have. By re-encoding the virtually conditioned spaces to which we are already privy—the drivers seat, the airplane interior, or social media profiles—we can channel the digital, as these artists do, into a force that works for us, too.

Craig Campbell
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Craig (Amherst College '15) is one of six 5CollDH undergraduate fellows for the 2014-2015 academic year.