Pierre Huyghe’s Latest Project Is Part Biotech Lab, Part Scene from a Sci-Fi Film
A disused ice rink on the outskirts of the small German city of Münster is currently breeding cancer cells. Part of this year’s Skulptur Projekte Münster, a decennial art event spearheaded by influential curator Kasper König that sees more than 35 projects scattered in its city center and greater environs, the ice rink is in fact a work by the French artist Pierre Huyghe, After ALife Ahead. Along with the cancer cells, Huyghe has placed bees, peacocks, and algae inside the excavated hangar-like structure, transforming it into a living organism and animating it via an augmented reality app.
The scene is dramatic, even if, as Huyghe tells me, this was not his goal: The former rink’s concrete floor is broken apart, with steps and a dirt ramp descending into the muddy, dugout ground. Two sections of the ceiling periodically open and close, allowing natural light, wind, and water into the artificial rink. An aquarium rests atop one of the remaining sections of concrete, its glass alternating between transparency and opacity. Though the broken floor, aquarium, and moving ceiling are the most visible elements, there are many smaller, yet equally significant components at play within the space.
Unseen sensors monitor the movement of the peacocks and bees, as well as the CO2 and bacteria levels within the ice rink. An algorithm uses this data to calculate the average vitality of the space and cables buried beneath the ground then transmit the information to an incubator containing the cancer cells. When the space has a higher vitality, so does the petri dish with cancer cells. When it has a lower vitality, the algorithm slows the cells’ rate of reproduction. Huyghe says the deeply intertwined yet unpredictable and constantly evolving results of this system are what interests him most about the work.
“I’m not interested in interconnected things, in relation to each other, but in their interdependency,” he says.
Huyghe has also translated the naturally occurring patterns on shells within the aquarium into a musical score that plays throughout the space. Specific sounds initiate a shift in the glass’s transparency, which then causes the ceiling to open or close. The augmented reality app, which can be downloaded by visitors, further responds to all of these factors. When looking through the app on a phone, floating pyramids emerge and fill the space. A new pyramid is created every time a cancer cell splits, but when two pyramids are close enough together, they can also “mate” and regenerate. When the ceiling opens, however, every pyramid disappears or “dies”—except for those with a special strength, granted to them by an evolutionary algorithm integrated into the app.
He designed the system such that the technology involved is dependent on natural factors, reversing the traditional notion that technologies can somehow bring nature under control. For example, he explains that the algorithms controlling this vast system are written in such a way that they will adapt and change in their mechanics as the conditions in the space change.
“It’s not a program written to be fixed, [but] rather changing operations contaminated by other languages,” he says. “Agents react and vary according to external factors.”
Huyghe explains that the project’s complexity isn’t intended to confuse viewers but instead to make them question where its processes (and thereby wider processes within our lives) begin and end. “It's a way to shift the centrality of the human position—whether as a maker or receptor. Indiscernibility and unpredictability are among other operations that could shift that position,” he says.
Many of Huyghe’s previous projects, specifically those at documenta 13 and Palais de Tokyo, served as building blocks for After ALife Ahead. For his work at Palais de Tokyo, shown late last year, he experimented with cancer cells and algorithms that controlled their speed of replication. He says it was literally a test-run for Skulptur Projekte Münster. At dOCUMENTA 13 in 2012, Huyghe produced an environment with a beehive-headed sculpture, two greyhounds, a man drawing his surroundings, and much more. While many people focused upon one dog, with its leg dyed pink, Huyghe says the work was not about animals.
“It was changing, shifting, living, evolving,” he says.
Thematically, his work at Skulptur Projekte Münster remains closely linked to this initial environment. He even says the evolutionary algorithm introduced in After ALife Ahead “could be considered as an archaic attempt to mimic life” and it adds an important layer to the work. Whereas his documenta installation illustrated human beings’ place within a larger system, only parts of which we can control, After ALife Ahead more acutely reflects the extent to which we attempt to intervene in these processes through technology, believing that we can bring logic and control to them. Instead interventions—whether technological, political, or otherwise—more often than not end in a way that couldn’t have been fully foreseen at their outset.
The point is driven home by the conflicts that emerge between various elements within After ALife Ahead. For example, something as simple as a sound initiates a ripple effect: When one sound causes the the ceiling to open and kill off augmented reality pyramids, it alters the rink’s CO2 and bacteria levels, affecting the algorithm’s vitality calculations, potentially boosting the cancer cell reproduction cycle, and causing even more or stronger pyramids to be born.