The circulation of qualifiers that are intended to define the epoch in which we live (“post-conceptual”, “post-Internet”, “post-human”, “anthropocenic”, or the quite simple, but no less charged term “contemporary”) is as intense as ever. The French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard (1924–98) is more or less absent from these discussions. This is perhaps not very surprising given that most will probably associate Lyotard with the idea of the postmodern, which in turn is thought of as something we have now left behind. We would appear to be relentlessly post-Lyotard.
Perhaps it is time to adjust this view. The book 30 Years after Les Immatériaux is about the exhibition that Lyotard curated for the Pompidou Centre in Paris in 1985 in co-operation with design theorist Thierry Chaput. At the time, Les Immatériaux was the most ambitious exhibition ever presented by the Centre: it took up the entire fifth floor, filling it with everything from robots and computer terminals to Egyptian reliefs and interactive video art. Even though Lyotard regarded the exhibition as a work of art, it was no art exhibition in the conventional sense; rather, it aimed to make manifest a number of trends epitomizing a “postmodern” situation, where information processing and technical and scientific innovation increasingly came to define the overall development of society. In his excellent contribution to the anthology, philosopher Robin Mackay describes the key role played by this project in the emergence of the art exhibition as an arena of philosophical debate and as a way of dramatizing contemporary culture. In this sense Les Immatériaux was a precursor of our present-day biennial culture, as well as of the widespread tendency towards mobilising contemporary art in the service of philosophy – and vice versa.
Man as interface
Despite what its title might lead one to think, Les Immatériaux was not a claim for the immaterial character of information society. As the editors Yuk Hui and Andreas Broeckmann take pains to emphasise in their introduction, the “immaterialities” addressed here were actually material through and through. In fact, the title of the exhibition was originally intended to be Les nouveaux matériaux et la creation – New materials and creation – but Lyotard changed the title in order to evade the theological connotations of the term “creation”.
According to Lyotard, new technical, biological and synthetic substances prompted a new perception of materiality as such. He wanted to challenge the idea of materials being the raw materials that man controls and shapes in his projects, and he saw an increasing, “almost excessive”, connection and intimacy between consciousnesses and things: software was being embedded in a range of materials, and at the same time the science of biochemistry made it clear that human consciousness could in itself be considered a kind of matter, a material thing.
All this is stated in a paper that Lyotard originally gave at the Pompidou in 1984. In addition to offering valuable insights into the collective process of working on Les Immatériaux, the text also contains several exceptionally poignant formulations that clearly demonstrate why this exhibition should be an obvious reference point in present-day discussions on neomaterialism and post-internet art (quoted here in Mackay’s English translation):
“man is not a subject facing the world of objects, but only – and this ‘only’ seems to me to be very important – only a sort of synapse, a sort of interactive clicking together of the complicated interface between fields wherein particle elements flow via channels of waves; and that if there is some greatness in man, it is only insofar as he is – as far as we know – one of the most sophisticated, most complicated, most unpredictable, and most improbable interfaces.”
Les Immatériaux sought to develop a kind of aesthetics for the new information society: cybernetic communication models formed the basis of an experiment that was to demonstrate how communication was certainly not simply an unproblematic exchange of messages from one human being to another.
When Lyotard speaks about interaction, then, he is not referring to what we think of as interactive installations, where the objective is to activate and involve the spectator:
“When I say interaction, what I am thinking of is rather a sort of ontology of the endless transmission of messages which are translated by each other, for better or worse, as much as possible, and where man himself is not the origin of messages, but sometimes the receiver, sometimes the referent, sometimes a code, sometimes a support for the message; and where sometimes he himself is the message.”
How might such interaction be presented in an exhibition? All visitors were given headphones that automatically tuned in to different broadcasts as you moved from one zone to another in the exhibition. These audio guides were demonstratively non-informative, featuring texts by writers such as Borges, Artaud and Blanchot. One of the reasons behind this choice was a desire to have the exhibition space infused by a total silence while each and every visitor was isolated in a “singular relationship” to the technical transmitters. The approach was also in keeping with how Lyotard advocated an exhibition format that modelled itself around sound, music and speech rather than around a static presentation of pictures and objects. His programmatic presentation of this model in his 1984 text, demonstrates why Les Immatériaux became such a seminal and inspirational experience for young artists such as Pierre Huyghe, Philippe Parreno and Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, artists who would later make international careers out of developing Lyotard’s idea of the exhibition as a medium for complex temporalizations.
30 Years after Les Immatériaux offers an exhaustive historical review. It includes Bernard Stiegler’s critical philosophical appraisal of Lyotard’s concept of technology and a compellingly readable testimony from the artist Jean-Louis Boissier, who was deeply involved in the project. Even so, the exhibition itself remains an intangible, enigmatic entity. Les Immatériaux quite demonstratively resisted attempts at forming an overview: while many have described the exhibition as a labyrinth, Lyotard envisaged it as “a kind of desert”. In his 1984 text he refused to formulate any summary of the exhibition, and explained why he did not want a catalogue that had the exhibition itself as its subject matter. Instead he launched, among other things, an experiment on network-based writing where approximately twenty intellectuals – including Jacques Derrida, Isabelle Stengers and Bruno Latour – were invited to write texts prompted by a number of keywords transmitted via minitel, the French precursor of the Internet.
So how should we remember an exhibition such as this? It ought to be an obvious candidate for reconstruction or re-enactment, an initiative that would be in keeping with one of the curatorial trends of our present day. However, according to sources at the Pompidou there are no plans to recreate Les Immatériaux, and quite incredibly the institution never reprinted the experimental catalogues (which can, at the time of writing, be purchased online for 5,000 kroner for the complete set; alternatively you can download them for free from monoskop.org).
The challenges involved in recreating this exhibition would quite obviously be different from those of more traditional object-based exhibitions such as When Attitudes Become Form, which was recreated in Venice in 2013. What is more, Les Immatériaux presents many challenges to the collective memory that also apply to the Internet: there is no backup. There never was a straight-forward object that could be put in an archival folder in the sure and certain knowledge that it would forever remain the same. And this is precisely why it is so interesting to imagine what a “re-immaterialisation” of the exhibition might be like.
Perhaps the thing I long for is already on its way: in Sven-Olov Wallenstein and Daniel Birnbaum’s fine contribution to the book, they mention in passing that the latter, acting in collaboration with Philippe Parreno, is working towards realising Résistances, the planned, but never realised follow-up to Les Immatériaux. I myself am certainly very keen to see this exhibition, which is announced in the third footnote on page 246 of 30 Years after Les Immatériaux.