Ursula

Conversations

Possibilia

Artists Fabien Giraud and Raphaël Siboni in conversation with Anne Stenne about possible futures and the influence of Pierre Huyghe

Pierre Huyghe, Liminal, 2024 © Pierre Huyghe / ADAGP, Paris (2024). Courtesy the Artist and Galerie Chantal Crousel, Marian Goodman Gallery, Hauser & Wirth, Esther Schipper and Taro Nasu.

  • Mar 16, 2024
  • Issue 10

An early look at the cover story of the upcoming print issue of Ursula No. 10, available April 15.

In early 2024, the artist Pierre Huyghe traveled to one of the most remote, arid places on earth, the Atacama Desert in Chile, to make a new film-based work—one that seems to peer equivocally into a distant, post-Anthropocene future—for his exhibition “Liminal” at the Punta della Dogana in Venice in conjunction with the 2024 Venice Biennale.

At the same time, in a forest in central France, the artists Raphaël Siboni and Fabien Giraud were working toward the beginning of a new work, together with the curator Anne Stenne, that held eschatological implications perhaps even more momentous: The Feral, an AI system designed to create a thousand-year-long film, broadcast live, with the participation of thirty-two generations of human performers. A Methuselah-esque social experiment, the work sets forth as its core proposition a reciprocal duet now beginning to take shape between human and artificial intelligence: “The more domesticated a machine system gets, the more ‘feral’ we become.”

Huyghe, 61, one of the most important artists of his generation and a pioneer of work at the cutting edge of neuroscience, technology and theory, has served as a strong influence for Siboni and Giraud, both 43. Huyghe has collaborated with the duo and will be the first artist-participant involved in The Feral when it launches fully in 2025. The three share complex interests in humanity’s near and distant future in ways that occasionally blur boundaries between their work—a blurring that has become something of a Huyghean calling card, a postmodern, post-auteur approach to artmaking that privileges ideas over easy individual delineation.

Still from Pierre Huyghe, Camata, 2024 – ongoing. Robotics driven by machine learning; self-directed film, edited in real time by artificial intelligence; sound; sensors

Still from Pierre Huyghe, Camata, 2024 – ongoing. Robotics driven by machine learning; self-directed film, edited in real time by artificial intelligence; sound; sensors

Like Huyghe, who often uses historical, scientific and cultural set pieces as conceptual devices—the bank robbery depicted in the movie Dog Day Afternoon; the story of the French version of Snow White; Le Corbusier’s design commission for Harvard’s Carpenter Center— Giraud and Siboni sample from history as a way to tap into complex structures underlying human events.

In their recently completed works The Unmanned and The Everted Capital, combinations of film, sculpture and installation, figures such as the chess player Garry Kasparov, the computer pioneer Alan Turing and the futurist Raymond Kurzweil—as well as the Black Death of 1348, Halley’s Comet and the Lyon silk workers’ revolts in the early 19th century—serve as narrative catalysts.

On the occasion of Huyghe’s debut of new work in Venice and final preparations to begin broadcasting a prologue to The Feral, Giraud and Siboni recently joined Stenne—the curator of “Liminal” and a co-founder and the artistic director of The Feral—for a series of conversations about art, artificial intelligence and the mounting existential uncertainty of the 21st century. These are edited excerpts of their exchange.

Pierre Huyghe, Liminal, 2024 © Pierre Huyghe / ADAGP, Paris (2024). Courtesy the Artist and Galerie Chantal Crousel, Marian Goodman Gallery, Hauser & Wirth, Esther Schipper and Taro Nasu.

“All of our behaviors, all of our actions and emotions are being watched by machines that learn from them. But this child will not just be our child—it will not be anything like us. And in the process of being parents, we will inevitably transform ourselves as well.”—Fabien Giraud

Randy Kennedy: I was hoping we could start out briefly talking about the two of you beginning to work together, Raphaël and Fabien, and about your relationship and collaborations with Pierre Huyghe. I read an interview in which you both talked about being young artists and filmmakers and conceiving of the present, the early 21st century, as a place with no outside—having a suffocating sense of the late-capitalist present and struggling, as artists, to think of a way to respond that would have any meaning. How did you start working together?

Raphaël Siboni: We met at the National School of Decorative Arts in Paris, in the video art department. I met Fabien in a documentary class, to be specific.

Fabien Giraud: I was coming back from India. I had taken a year out of school to go to a design institute there but dropped out and came back to Paris. I was one year behind and ended up being in Raphaël’s class. As soon as I got back, people told me there was one person I had to meet, and it was him. A crucial part of our meeting was our teacher, Alain Moreau, to whom we later dedicated one of our films, Bassae Bassae [2012]. Coincidentally, we actually met Pierre in the course of making this film. So there’s a story about that film in terms of relations to “masters,” if you will. Raphaël and I, through our conversations in this class, came to realize a shared conflict with certain traditions of documentary filmmaking. The pedagogical angle of Alain Moreau was that documentary is not about filming the real or recording the real. It’s about dealing with the “effects of the real.” There is no such thing as “the real” as soon as you bring a camera into a place. The question of documentary for him was that of a negotiation with this tension, with this inherent falsity of filmmaking. In my conversations with Raphaël, we pushed that approach to its outer limit, to a place where he didn’t follow us. We said: “Okay, if that’s what documentary is about, if it is not about the real as a referent, as an ‘object,’ but rather about the ways our belief in the real is crafted and mediated, then we can make documentary with CGI, we can make it with artificial intelligence.” That’s how we started our conversation, and it hasn’t stopped.

RK: Raphaël, in those days, who influenced you? Which filmmakers or artists were you interested in?

RS: I was fascinated by kung fu films. For my diploma, I shot a minimalist martial-art film set in the studio of my art school.

RK: Why kung fu?

RS: At that time, I was also a student at the Beaux-Arts in Paris. I was experimenting with the idea that film could be like sculpture. And for me, kung fu films were the perfect illustration of this: choreography of bodies, fragmentation of space and distortion of time.

FG: I remember you telling me about Tsui Hark.

RS: Yes! Dangerous Encounters of the First Kind [1980] and of course Time and Tide [2000], his mind-blowing take on the French Nouvelle Vague.

Still from Fabien Giraud & Raphaël Siboni’s “The Everted Capital (585 BCE – 2022),” from The Unmanned, 2022. HD video and live camera, 70 minutes

Still from Fabien Giraud & Raphaël Siboni’s “The Everted Capital (585 BCE – 2022),” from The Unmanned, 2022. HD video and live camera, 70 minutes

FG: I was not coming from that film scene at all, but I was fascinated by how, in his films, everything goes so fast. The fighting scenes are so fast you have no narration of space, as in: “I’m in this room. I’m entering this hallway to enter another room, etc.” A mental mapping. In his films, all the action happens so quickly it creates another type of space altogether.

RS: I was fascinated by the strange connections in which a documentary-type film like Moi, un noir [1958] by Jean Rouch could have such an effect on Godard, who used things from it to shape À bout de souffle [1960]. And then a Hong Kong filmmaker wants to do new versions of À bout de souffle, except with kung fu.

RK: On the subject of film history, you’ve both spoken about the conceptual importance for you of the Lumière brothers’ first film, Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory, in 1895, and how the brothers filmed it but then decided to film it again to make the seemingly documentary shot, of employees streaming out of a doorway, more harmonious.

FG: We’ve always been obsessed with that inaugural anecdote of cinema. There was a period of six months between the first recording of the exit from the factory by the workers and the second one, where they staged the workers to come out all closer together, so that the action fit the length of the film and showed everyone exiting—a clean narrative. They were even dressed better the second time. They came on a Sunday and were in church clothes. It is the second shot that’s always shown as “the first film of cinema,” not the first. It makes perfect sense: They did not invent cinema because they invented a mechanical device to photographically record bodies and situations. They invented something which was much more than a simple mechanical device. They folded the bodies, pressed the workers’ flesh into the frame, into the limited duration of the reel and the constraints of the frame. That’s when they truly created something. That six months between the first filming and the re-filming was, for us, a utopian moment—cinema could have been anything. It’s what they call in logic “possibilia,” an opening of possibles. The Lumière brothers’ particular instantiation was just filmed theater, in a way. That’s what they had as a reference, a stage in a frame with curtains opening up, people coming on stage, people leaving the stage. But cinema could have been something else entirely.

RK: Were there other filmmakers who influenced you or artists who were using film as part of their work?

FG: Well, very much actually, Pierre Huyghe.

RS: That’s true.

RK: When did you both become aware of his work?

FG: It was exactly around that time, when we were still in school, because Pierre had made Third Memory. [The 2000 work reenacts the robbery of a Brooklyn bank immortalized in Sidney Lumet’s 1975 film Dog Day Afternoon, showing that the actual bank robber’s memories blended fact and movie fiction.] That work was very important for us. At the time, we were discussing a lot about the types of questions his worked raised, about the real as a stage, about simulacra and defaults of origins.

Still from Fabien Giraud & Raphaël Siboni’s “The Everted Capital (585 BCE – 2022),” from The Unmanned, 2022. HD video and live camera, 70 minutes

Still from Fabien Giraud & Raphaël Siboni, “1997—The Brute Force,” from The Unmanned, 2014. HD video, 26 minutes

RS: Even the title, Third Memory, resonated with what we were starting to think together: facts, the documentary, then the fiction of the facts and, finally, a third path, shattering this distinction, when the real bank robber is betrayed by his own memory. It became a shorthand for us.

FG: Pierre was also the only one at the time who was doing something important in this weird place in which we accidentally found ourselves, meaning between cinema and art. But also, Baudrillard had just died. He was obviously someone we were reading deeply. And Pierre seemed to have created something that was the most convincing out of that Baudrillardian atmosphere of the late 1990s.

RS: At that time, the relation between video art or contemporary art and cinema, both documentary and fiction, was very dialectical. There were two clear sides. Pierre was one of the first trying not just to oppose them, but to turn this divide into something new.

FG: To go back to our influences, the references we had at the time, and still have today, are very mixed and unpure, meaning that we could look to Tsui Hark and also to Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet and other Marxist filmmakers that we were introduced to quite early in school. We looked at the whole tradition of French radical cinema, at Maoist experiments and also at the biggest, dirtiest blockbusters. I believe that’s something we share with Pierre. He is clearly someone who, from very early on, understood this unpure approach to images.

Anne Stenne: I discovered Pierre’s work beside that of other artists, like Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Pierre Joseph and Philippe Parreno, in the late 1990s and early 2000s. I was intrigued by their shared interests about the articulation between reality and fiction, how they questioned the exhibition format and proposed another approach to the audience in relation to the space.

FG: One thing that was very important for us was that everything starts with repetition. Remember Baudrillard’s articles in Libération and The Guardian about the first Gulf War, where he said the war never happened because the way it was presented to the public made it impossible to distinguish between fact and simulacra. He said it again for the World Trade Center. Because it was doubled, it had to be analyzed in the spectrum of simulacra. Pierre, then, was tapping into that idea about the real always being a repetition, about never having access to the “real” as such. That’s a very Derrida or Baudrillard kind of angle. It goes back to what we were saying about the Lumière brothers. The first film of cinema is actually a remake, a double.

AS: Very early, in 1994, Pierre did a work called Remake, which was a shot-for-shot mental reconstruction of part of Hitchcock’s Rear Window [1954], transplanted to an anonymous Paris suburb. With that film, Pierre was interested in the idea of accidents generated by repetition, more than by the plot itself.

FG: We wanted to work in that same space of ideas but also, I think, in a way that was different from Pierre. We were always interested in ideas about the physicality of cinema. These spaces in film, they don’t necessarily exist. A frame doesn’t exist in a physical, material sense. Cinema does not record anything. It’s a device of production—a production of the real. We were interested in this physicality.

AS: It is not necessarily the place or the image that matters but the relation between them. Film allows for the production of subjectivities. It is a construction that also includes what has not been filmed. For example, in his film L’Ellipse [1998], Pierre fills the hole of an unfolding fiction by asking an actor to slip out of his role and physically experience the separation between two scenes of a film twenty years later, revealing a gap in space and time.

RS: It relates to something Fabien was talking about before. What we were interested in when we began working together was the ellipsis between the invention of cinema as a technical device and the invention of cinema as an art. We said to ourselves: “Okay, let’s pretend we can go back to that time and try to start cinema again from that point.”

FG: The first was shot in March and the second in September and we said: “Okay, let’s do the cinema of the summer.”

“In both The Feral and in Pierre’s work, there is a search for a perspective other than the human, an ‘outside of us’ that allows a knowledge of ourselves that we cannot otherwise access, an experience of the impossible.”—Anne Stenne

Jakob von Uexküll and his “Flying Aquarium,” 1914. Courtesy Jakob-von-Uexküll-Archiv at the Universität Hamburg

RK: When you made your work called La Vallée von Uexküll [2009–14], you filmed the sunset with a camera from which you removed the lens, so that what results is not an image, per se, but something that feels like unmediated perception, as if you were trying to remove human subjectivity from a work. Was that the idea?

FG: Yes. It goes back to your first question about the present. Around 2009, 2010, we were obsessed with the idea of how one could empty the present of human figures and the infinite lapping of their worldly affairs. And among the ideas we played with were ones we shared with Pierre, even though we didn’t know it at the time. The title refers to the work of Jakob von Uexküll, a German Baltic biologist who worked in the early 20th century and who developed a concept called Umwelt—basically the idea that every species, every organism, inhabits a world of its own, conditioned by its physiology, its mode of perceptions, its specific access to its environment, etc. And these worlds can live alongside each other without ever interacting, without any encounter between their specific Umwelts. We thought of this space in between worlds as some kind of valley between mountains, a rift—thus the title La Vallée von Uexküll.

RS: Adapting von Uexküll’s concept to our work, we tried to go back in biological and geological time far enough to reduce a film to one parameter only: a certain amount of light hitting the camera sensor’s surface.

FG: That’s because the lens creates the stage, the stage that the Lumière brothers were looking for. If you just have a sensitive surface that captures light, it’s something else. We were thinking about the first reptiles 400 million years ago that came out of the water and opened an eye to something they had never seen.

AS: It was about questioning the tools of capture, to reconfigure them and allow something else to happen.

FG: The desire was to alienate our devices, our cameras, which are very domestic. To open up their full contingent nature.

RS: We wanted to create a film that you, as a human being, can experience without being at the center of it. Sure, you can see the light, but this time the light hasn’t been bent to the curvature of your eye.

Fabien Giraud & Raphaël Siboni, preparatory sketches for The Feral (Epoch 1—Prologue), 2024 – 3024

Fabien Giraud & Raphaël Siboni, preparatory sketches for The Feral (Epoch 1—Prologue), 2024 – 3024

FG: I think a good work is a work that doesn’t know its audience. Upon its creation, it doesn’t yet know what its audience is, because otherwise it’s just communication. Communication is about the transfer of information between two pre-constituted subjects. But the question mark is what I’m obsessed with—and I think Pierre is also. You don’t know the identity of the audience or the viewer. And I think that’s crucial, not to presuppose. Otherwise, you do bad work.

AS: I agree with you. The work should not be addressed intentionally to an audience as such. It should be indifferent. To push the idea further, it can also exist independently of the presence of the viewer, which is something essential in Pierre’s work. He often says, “I’m not exhibiting something to someone. I’m exhibiting someone to something.”

FG: It’s very difficult to presuppose what the human really is. The only definition of the human I can come up with is that it’s something always in the process of transformation, of de-identifying itself to become itself.

AS: The human is an escape route.

FG: Right. That’s the only definition, a very minimal definition, that seems to work. For the human, it’s always about getting out of itself, out of its supposed identity or essence. Even human subjectivity doesn’t mean much. It is an unstable, very transient form. Our subjectivities of late-capitalism have nothing in common with the subjectivities of ancient Mesopotamia. We’re almost a different species.

RS: That’s what the title of our work The Unmanned is about, the ability of the human mind to think of its own negation, being able to redefine what you are and what you are not, and using “the not” to make you become something else.

AS: It’s a self-alienation. In both The Feral and in Pierre’s work, there is a search for a perspective other than the human, an “outside of us” that allows a knowledge of ourselves that we cannot otherwise access, an experience of the impossible.

RK: It seems to me that you and Raphaël, along with Pierre, share a hyperactive awareness of the particular place within the development of human consciousness in which you’re living and working as artists right now.

FG: We’ve always been interested in the anthropological function of art. It’s very common nowadays to think of art as social commentary, but maybe we’re trying to put it on another kind of level, asking: “In the big scheme, what is art doing to or for our species?” Not just for us as social beings. I don’t think of art as some kind of activity humans do, but as that through which we become humans in the first place, as that which allows us to be figures detached from a ground we inhabit. And clearly today, we are at a tipping point, not just in art, but in the means of representation more generally. I think we are now going through a full crisis in this process of self-figuration, a crisis that could also be an opportunity for positive transformations if dealt with correctly. There are many phenomena driving this crisis, but obviously AI-driven social networks—with their quantifications of subjectivities, data-fication of intimacies and hijacking of existential projections—play a major role in it.

“The idea of an artificial intelligence that can predict what each individual should desire means the complete death of imagination. It is as if something could desire in your place, without you. To me, art is a kind of wall in between you and what you think you desire. It’s a kind of cut.”—Raphaël Siboni

RS: To go back to the question of the viewer, the holy grail for the movie and video game industry right now is to create content that perfectly fits all the desires of any individual. So that basically . . .

RK: We all become audiences of one.

RS: Yeah. You enter a prompt about a video game or a movie you dream of, and you can play it instantly. As if the machine could precede your own desire, and could make the gap between something and your desire for it disappear. It’s exactly the opposite of what we’re trying to do. The idea of an artificial intelligence that can predict what each individual should desire means the complete death of imagination. It is as if something could desire in your place, without you. To me, art is a kind of wall in between you and what you think you desire. It’s a kind of cut.

RK: When you started The Unmanned, how did the framework for that develop?

FG: It developed out of the first works we mentioned, works like the La Vallée von Uexküll series, in which no figures are possible. It was a fully alienating opening of the window to the outside, and we were thinking: “Okay, how can we bring back this outside onto the stage of the human?” We’ve always liked the joke by Godard, who had good jokes. He said that if the telescope was invented to show the infinitely big and the microscope to show the infinitely small, the caméscope, the video camera, is here to show the infinitely average, the infinite middle. How can you pierce the infinite average with the infinite outside? That’s what we try to do as much as we can.

RK: With The Unmanned, you were at least in part examining the effect of computation on human consciousness, on human self-awareness?

FG: We were less interested in computation than in what computation was invented for, which is a means for prediction. Computation can be seen as only that, just another step in the long history of humans trying to deal with the uncertainty of what’s coming next, what we need to know about the future in order to stay safe. Two thousand years ago, the Etruscans would kill a sheep, take its liver, show it to the sun and try to read the future in it to see if the crops would be good. Computation is the latest stage in this history.

RS: For a long time, computation was based on the physiological capacity and limitation of the human body. You can count with your hands. You can do a certain amount of computation with your body and your brain. And then, not so many decades ago, we gained the power to externalize computational power to something that was outside of us. With The Unmanned, we tried to explore how this externalization has transformed us as a species.

FG: I think one thing that we share deeply with Pierre, at least in the work that he’s doing now and has been doing for quite a while, is the obsession with the possible, with the space of possibilities. When you talk about computation, uncertainty or becoming, all of these things are dealing with possibilities. What is the possible? What is that space which is not yet here, which is a “maybe”? A “maybe” that you cannot yet represent but that nonetheless exists fully as a constant projection of yourself in the future. And it’s a very strange era that we’re living in, because even as we develop so many highly advanced technologies for predictions and rationalizations of the possible, we seem to have less and less faith in the future itself, in the eventuality that there will even be a possible. It’s striking that, as we are developing AI, we are destroying the place in which we live, which was, until now, the very substrate of the possible. We might just be creating the witness of our own disappearance. Maybe that’s what AI will do.

View of Pierre Huyghe’s After a Life Ahead, 2017. Ice rink concrete floor, sand, clay, phreatic water, bacteria, algae, bees, chimera peacock, aquarium, black switchable glass, conus textile, incubator, human cancer cells, genetic algorithm, augmented reality, automated ceiling structure, rain, ammoniac, logic game. Photo: Ola Rindal

View of Pierre Huyghe’s Variants, 2021–ongoing. Scanned forest, real-time simulation, generative mutations and sounds, intelligent camera, environmental sensors, animals, plants, micro-organisms and materialized mutations: synthetic and biological material aggregate. Photo: Ola Rindal

RS: To rephrase it in terms of sculpture: Can an object be both the witness and the silent proof of a vanished world or a world yet to come?

AS: Again, it is about how to produce an experience of an impossibility, how to create a zone of non-knowledge to generate other possibilities. Nothing is fixed. It’s not about making objects that are bounded but about creating things that have the capacity for the displacement of sense, for unpredictability.

RK: Thinking about the new work Pierre is doing in the desert, the idea of artificial intelligence as witness certainly seems to be one of the overriding impressions.

AS: Yes, but beyond witnessing, it is also about the idea of the formation of a specific subjectivity. The work is titled Camata, and in it a set of machines performs an enigmatic ritual around an unburied human skeleton lying on the ground of the Atacama Desert in Chile. As the machines learn from the situation unfolding in the here and now, we assist in a passage between different realities, between a lifeless entity and a lifeless human body. It’s almost a metaphysical transaction that operates here.

RK: And contained within that idea is the thought that what AI becomes is based on what it knows about our history as a planet, as a species, what we have provided it?

AS: The film is endlessly editing itself based on what is sensed and captured, from the desert to the exhibition space. The robots endlessly move, configuring elements related to the desert, to the human, to their own position, and what they do constitutes a new language that we can’t understand. There’s a question of how to populate, to train the AI, so it can generate a situation beyond human comprehension. In Venice, there will also be a new work by Pierre titled Idiom, in which an unknown language will literally be self-generated live during the exhibition. Specific features, some perceptible but others imperceptible by humans, are detected by sensors and then converted into a language vocalized through masks carried by people circulating through the exhibition. Here too, even if Idiom is learning from its environment and from our reality, the language it produces will sound ineffable to us, as if from another reality. It brings us back to the surface sensibility we were talking about at the beginning.

FG: For The Feral, a project conceived as a thousand-year collective training of an artificial intelligence, its starting point is the question of how an AI learns what a world is. What kind of knowledge does it need to acquire to constitute a “world”? In the case of AI, it’s not conceptual knowledge. It’s purely statistical, just information.

AS: Data.

FG: Yes, and the way data is organized, the way it’s labeled and mapped, is a human construct—it is always a specific model, a particular representation of the world with its metaphysical, historical and subjective priors and choices. We are telling it: These are entities; they are named in such a way; they go together; they belong to these categories, etc., very much like we do with a child. I think we are now in a unique anthropological moment in which we are collectively the parents of artificial intelligence. All of our behaviors, all of our actions and emotions are being watched by machines that learn from them. But this child will not just be our child—it will not be anything like us. And in the process of being parents, we will inevitably transform ourselves as well. We live in very uncertain, interesting times. As the old saying goes: “May you live in interesting times.”

AS: Yes, very interesting. How to become the parents of an inhuman entity. Inhuman being understood—as in Jean-Francois Lyotard’s 1987 essay “Can Thought Go On Without a Body?”—before any domestication, humanization or categorization, based on computation, logic and prediction.

RS: The concept of time is worth revising with the emergence of AI. For the computer, time is not a line but a surface. There are no sequential events and therefore there is no present. There are only patterns of data, patterns of behavior that are statistically matched and compared.

FG: You can really think of it as a space-time continuum plane, which is doing something to our conception of time itself. RS We wanted to adapt this idea of time to the production of films themselves and to exhibition spaces. In the seasons of The Unmanned, there’s an episode in 2014 that reconstructs the minutes following Garry Kasparov’s chess defeat against IBM’s Deep Blue computer in 1997. We used a camera with pre-programmed robotic movements to scrutinize the empty room where the match took place. And then we made an episode three years later in which two events are featured, the return of Halley’s Comet in 1759 and the Black Death in 1348, believed by some at the time to have been caused by a comet. For that, we used the same camera and the same robotic arm movements. We shaped the set based on these movements. So the trees are in weird positions and the people are contorted by the movements of the camera that comes from 1997.

FG: These two films can be seen separately or together. They share the same movements. They’re perfectly synchronized in completely different contexts, completely different histories. And each episode of The Unmanned series has its duo like that, following the driving idea of the project, that what links historical moments is not just the linear succession on the arrow of time but the matching of patterns across the abstract plane of computational time.

Stills from Pierre Huyghe’s The Third Memory, 1999. Film, double projection, 9 min.; color, sound, paper archives, 22 min. Co-production: Centre Pompidou, Musée national d’art moderne, Service Nouveaux Medias / The Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago

RS: For the first episode of The Everted Capital, which we shot in Australia, we basically started with a very linear fiction. There was a murder, then a trial, then a few events. But the idea was to break this linear logic and try to make a film where all the events would happen at the same time in the loop and in the space. Each event is distributed in the space of the museum and everything happens at the same time. You can see, for instance, at the same time, a cause and the consequence, a glass and the same glass broken. The idea was to make a film that is not following time but that is unfolding time into space.

FG: For The Feral, that idea has come to the fore. As you know, AI is at the center of the whole project, and it’s at the center because of one particular thing: Time for an AI machine is not our time. For a machine, there is no presence. It doesn’t experience time as we do because it doesn’t have a sense of presence. It has a present, but no presence, you know? It’s a presence-less present, let’s say. Past, future and what we call “present”—all are just patterns, statistical points in the latent space, to use technical terms. The notion of a latent space in generative AI is fascinating, aesthetically and conceptually, because in it, entities are not entities. Entities are statistical clouds in an abstract space—a continuous space of possibility. There are no things but only possibilities of things, infinite variations of things that could be, infinite “maybes.” One question we’re exploring for The Feral is this: As humans, we’re obsessed with the idea of “presence,” of being present in the moment, all of that. We even confuse presence with truth. We think as humans that only what is present is real, but we often forget that we have the limitation of our biological and mental way of experiencing the world, which is very thin. I read recently that for an optical perception to reach my brain, it takes 300 milliseconds. In a way, that’s what we call the “present.” But the present could also be something very different. It could be intervals of millions of years. It could be larger than any thinkable interval. And we could still call it our “present.” I think machines, with their presence-less time, can help to emancipate us from our narrow presence, this perceptive chauvinism in which we are caught—that prison of the present.

RS: We go back to the idea of the witness. Usually, the witness knows—because he was there, he was present—where and when an event happened. Deprived of presence, AI has the strange ability to be a witness without being present, a witness out of the present.

FG: There’s a very good opportunity, I think, to enlarge our very small human-centric interval present. Our presento-centrism, basically. The Feral is like a school for an AI but also a school for humans.

AS: Several worlds unfold simultaneously. Artificial intelligences learn from different outcomes. It is a superposition of dimensions that generates infinite possibilities. The Feral is not necessarily about the site or the conditions. It is about how to create a situation beyond the artists’ control and beyond our presence. In other words: Teach the machine to generate non-human will.

Still from Pierre Huyghe’s Human Mask, 2014. Film, color, sound, 19 minutes

FG: Ernst Gombrich wrote a very interesting essay late in his life called “Meditations on a Hobby Horse.” It was his idea that the child playing with a hobbyhorse in the nursery but clearly riding through the plains of Mongolia while being just on a broomstick shows what representation has always been for us as humans. It’s a fictional projection—a make-believe. It’s not a metaphor or the relation of a sign to a signified but a material support of a simulation of oneself into another world. Raphaël and I have always been obsessed with the idea of replacing the concept of representation with that of simulation. It changes everything. The term simulation here should not be understood solely in reference to its use in computation but in the wider sense of a projection space.

AS: For The Feral, as for Pierre, fiction is a vessel for accessing possibilities or impossibilities. Simulation allows for the emergence of doubt, for questioning the human condition.

FG: Another important question with The Feral is: Can we produce reverse archeology? Usually, there’s a world, a place, and there’s the debris from this place, archeological debris. Right? And you form a narrative about the place from the debris that you find. But you could also start with the debris before the world. The philosopher Federico Campagna writes about how we should accept the end of our world. That it’s okay. The question is: What kind of debris are we leaving? Meaning, what kind of debris are we producing in order for another world to emerge? If you think about it like that, it creates a tension with futurity which is interesting. It’s a weird move to make us accept our terrestrial finitude, but I like it.

AS: And this, in a sense, is what we are building with The Feral. One thousand years is a good time frame for another world to emerge.

RK: Why did you set a millennium as the timeframe?

FG: It’s been used by empires, but that’s obviously not why we took it. It actually comes from forest science, from primary forests’ timescales. In a moderate climate situation like in France, if humans abandoned a city, or any environment actually, it would slowly go back to its forest state. First lichens, then bushes, then trees. And the process to go to a mature, multi-scalar forest would take somewhere between eight hundred and a thousand years. One could say that it is the approximate duration for the erasure of human influence. That’s the timescale we chose in relation to the geographical site of the project, in a forest in central France. A thousand years is nothing on a geological scale. But for humans, in the panic mode we all are in today, it’s a troubling thought. In the end, it represents only thirty-two generations from now—if we don’t become immortals meanwhile.

RK: It’s interesting to think about this work in the forest, to which Pierre will contribute, and the work he’s doing right now in the desert, very dialectical places.

AS: Both have, obviously, a strong symbolic, philosophical, metaphysical dimension. The Atacama Desert is the oldest desert and the driest place on earth, with no life-forms, a testing ground for exoplanets. The forest is the reverse, populated by life-forms. In both, there is another relation to time and space. In Pierre’s Camata, you can see the body, the skeleton, preserved by the climate, almost merging with the landscape. The forest and the desert are both perfect images to trigger fictions and to project enigmatic situations, for rituals to unfold and creatures to appear.

Collaborators since 2008, Fabien Giraud and Raphaël Siboni live and work in Paris. Both come from documentary practices; their joint work combines sculpture, film and performance with the aim of exploring and making the hypothesis of entirely different worlds a reality. They have exhibited at Mona, Australia; the Liverpool Biennial, England; the Lyon Biennale, France; the Okayama Triennale, Japan; the Palais de Tokyo, Paris; and Casino Luxembourg. A monograph on their longtime project The Unmanned was published in 2022. In 2024, they will launch their new project, The Feral, with curator Anne Stenne—a collective artwork on the scale of a landscape that will unfold over the next one thousand years.

Pierre Huyghe lives and works in Santiago, Chile. He has had solo exhibitions at EMMA, Espoo, Finland; Kistefos Museum, Jevnaker, Norway; Luma Foundation, Arles; Serpentine Gallery, London; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Skulptur Projekte, Münster; and other major institutions throughout the world. In 2012, his work Untilled was one of the most critically acclaimed contributions to Documenta 13 in Kassel.

Anne Stenne is an independent curator. She has closely worked with Pierre Huyghe since 2014. Her recent curatorial projects with Huyghe have included exhibitions at EMMA, Espoo, Finland; Kistefos Museum, Jevnaker, Norway; and Luma Foundation, Arles.