Gréogry Chatonsky and Dominique Sirois are the first artists-in-residence at the newly opened Unicorn Centre for Art in Caochangdi. Kira Simon-Kennedy caught up with them as they were installing their current exhibition, Telofossils, in Beijing (on view now in Wuhan until June 30th), to talk about what will happen to all of our tech junk once humans go extinct.

China Residencies: You’ve been here since March?

Dominique Sirois: Yes. If you don’t mind, I’m going to keep gluing things and working on the installation while we talk.

CR: Of course, go ahead.

Grégory Chatonsky: And we’ll be here for two more weeks; our exhibition opens on April 25th here in Beijing. The Unicorn Centre for Art just opened, this is only the second show they’ve had here.

CR: Tell me a little bit about this residency.

GC: Cheng Manman, the director, spent five years in France, and I think we’re the very first residents here. We’re on a production residency, spending a month and a half building this exhibition.

CR: How has it been going so far?

GC: The space is really beautiful, it’s huge, it’s a classic white cube. And the apartments are upstairs, right above the galleries. I think the residency is understaffed though, it’s just Manman and Mr Tang, who speaks a few words of English, but we have a lot of technical needs that we can’t figure out on our own here. They just opened, so they are still working things out.

CR: Have you been on other residencies in the past?

GC: Yes, we often take on residencies. We were recently at the Villa Kujoyama in Tokyo.

CR: You also took part in the Offshore residency in Shanghai.

GC: Yes, we were asked to do an exhibition in Taipei, so we came to China to start researching in Shanghai, spending six weeks at Paul Devautour’s Ecole Offshore. I knew Paul from the Beaux Art school in Paris, so we set something up in the Bazaar. We loved being there, it was a great experience. Paul and his wife Yilan are great -- they really provide great support for the artists they host. Being in China is like being on Mars, so you absolutely need someone to guide you along.

CR: What work did you show in the Bazaar Compatible?

GC: The work we showed in the Bazaar is actually the prototype for this exhibition, titled Protofossils. The show was tiny, it was an exploration into textures and materials. And I loved the idea of setting up in the market.

Exhibition view of Protofossils (2012), Bazaar Compatible #20, Shanghai

CR: And did the neighboring vendors like it?

GC: Yes. It was great because we were also able to teach. Paul and Yilan are really active and helped us a lot, and Paul really knows the contemporary art world. He understands what’s at stake. So we made the prototype there in Shanghai, then we installed the exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Taiwan. It was a joint project between Canada and Taiwan, with a curator from each country. We were there for two months, installing in the museum with the help of their great team. I really love being in Taiwan, it’s a fantastic place. Then, the Institut Français got in touch, they had wanted to work with us for a while. It was interesting to do this project in Beijing given China’s strategic situation: in twenty years, no one will be able to live here, the ground will be too polluted. Dominique and I never like to mount the same exhibition twice, that’s no fun. And since the works are so large, we can’t transport them.  

CR: So you create everything on site?

GC: Yes, and we always work with the materials we find. So the starting point for this work is relatively simple: living species are born, and they die. We are a living species, so we will eventually disappear.  Not only because of the pollution -- there’s no moralistic stance behind all this -- individuals within a species die, and the entire species will also become extinct at some point.

CR: It’s inevitable.

GC: We have tendency to always bring things back to us, to humans, to the pollution we’re creating, but that’s a very anthropocentric point of view.

CR: Yes, it could be anything

GC: Exactly, a disease…

CR: A meteorite…

GC: Yes, anything. We’re going to disappear. And once the last human is gone, something will arrive on Earth (or might already be here, it doesn’t matter), and is going to excavate and discover everything we’ve produced. Those millions and millions of objects will be all that is left. The planet will be haunted by these millions of objects; a plastic bag will live on longer than any human being. What will this being, this non-human counterpart, deduct from this plastic bag? We want to put people in this strange and ambiguous position of contemplating their own extinction. We want them to observe their present by thinking about a time in the future where there are no longer any humans. It’s fascinating-- while making this project, we’ve become aware of this entire field of research around media archeology, with people like Jussi Parikka. Dominique and I don’t always work together, we also have our own practices, and in one of Dominique's previous projects from 2011, Archéologie Mondialisée [Globalized Archeology], she fossilized items from dollar stores, actually often made in China, to show that something that costs a dollar today might become something rare and precious in 2000 years. And I’ve been working on the themes of destruction and the end of the world since 2001. I’m interested in what will remain from this utopia we’re in, that wants to believe that the digital technologies we’re using are immaterial.

Detail of Télofossils II (2015) at the Unicorn Centre for Art, Beijing

CR: Yes, when looking at the insides of these hard drives, there’s no way to infer that something like the internet ever existed.

GC: Yes, exactly. Machines are becoming reading devices but they don’t work like hieroglyphs. If you find a CD in the desert in a hundred thousand years, good luck trying to read it! It’s an object that becomes indescribable. It raises a lot of questions on the way we delegate the act of reading to machines, which make all future readings impossible, or very difficult. Again, the point of this project is to bring people to reflect on the present, by positioning the work so far in the future. The end of the 20th Century and the beginning of the 21st will be remembered as the internet era, that’s for certain.

CR: “New media” isn’t that new anymore, it’s just media now.

GC: Yes, the post-internet movement worked hard for this and now we’re finally there. We take it for granted, we live online but we have absolutely no idea how it all works. One way to solve that problem is to project ourselves well into the future, in order to ask ourselves where we are now. So in this main room is the archeological dig, with a video projection on the back wall.

DS: The idea is to add traditional objects into the mix, these are fossils that could already have existed millions of years ago. It complicates the different layers of thought. So here we’re using a roof tile, a piece of coal. We went to a refurbished electronics store and bought all of this.

Detail of Télofossils II (2015) at the Unicorn Centre for Art, Beijing

GC: Here, everything is reused and repurposed -- it still has value.

DS: People can make a living in the underground recycling markets.

CR: And there are enormous e-waste recycling centers as well.

DS: They’re repurposing the tiniest pieces of copper, but it’s really dangerous.

CR: Yes, they’re inhaling all the little particles, and don’t always have proper protective gear to wear.

DS: They work with their bare hands! I’ve been watching documentaries and news videos on these places, it’s scary.

CR: Also, with all the new real estate development in China, new dinosaur fossils are discovered all the time.

DS: And since it’s newly developed land, they must be finding lots of things. We’d also like to go to Inner Mongolia to see all the mineral extraction and mining industries in Baotou.

GC: I want to go and film the runoff lake. We didn’t want to directly take inspiration from these issues, but I think doing this project in China definitely makes sense. The Chinese are starting to gain greater consciousness of the environment they are subjected to, and that they place themselves in. China’s role is absolutely critical, and I think the agreements Obama set in motion are very smart, it’s the beginning of a solution. China could make decisions and enforce solutions faster than many parliamentary European governments.

Installation view of Télofossils II (2015) at the Unicorn Centre for Art, Beijing

CR: Given that a lot of your research and experimentation is done online, how has the state of the internet here affected how you work?

GC: The only difference is that it feels like going back in time ten years in terms of speed, it’s like our old dial-up connections.

DS: And it’s unreliable, you have to keep changing servers…

GC: I can see lots of entries and exits from my computer, pirates, zombies… I have a copy of some software the NSA made called Carnivore that monitors that kind of traffic, and it’s clearly all tapped.

DS: Is it surveillance?

CR: It’s not necessarily targeted -- a lot of it is automatic.  

GC: Of course. Your machines become zombies here, connecting to other machines and using those connections for other tasks.  

CR: Has it changed the way to go about things?

GC: Not really, we feel totally free to do whatever we want. We shouldn’t delude ourselves, everything is surveilled in the West as well.

CR: And will this show travel after Beijing?

GC: It’s going to Wuhan next, as part of the Croisements festival, then we’re headed back to Montreal before going on another residency in Belgium...

DS: …On a related project.

GC: …. About data centers. It’s a two month residency with an exhibition in September. I really like these production residencies. Dominique also likes research residencies.

DS: It’s good to have a moment to think and reflect between production and exhibitions.

CR: That’s why we recommend three month residencies, so the first month can be dedicated to research and the following months can be spent creating, while also still having the time to get a good sense of the place.

GC: I really like the working with the motivation of an upcoming exhibition, I prefer making new work to showing previously completed pieces.

DS: It’s also possible to combine research and production if there’s enough time.

CR: I love your project Exploit, where a computer gets infected by viruses.

DS: Yes, it’s upstairs!

GC: These images are outputs from viruses. The idea is very simple: I don’t install any antivirus software on the computer, but I still make sure to protect the system, so the computer’s not connected to a wifi network. I install lots of viruses, spyware, worms, zombie machines and so on, then I use Carnivore to gather data, then I run it through a script in Photoshop to create these very calming images.

Installation view of Exploit (2015) at the Unicorn Centre for Art, Beijing

CR: They remind me of fortune tellers’ aura photographs, and spirit photography.

GC: Yes, I’ve been thinking a lot about the 19th Century, the 1830s to 1870s, Jonathan Crary’s work and all that. This piece touches on spirit photography, and the magic side of computers. It’s also about taking viruses for what they are -- living organisms -- and putting them in a zoo of sorts. Another computer will be showing the color progressions in real time.

CR: Tell me about your "Paint it Back (Feedback)" series with the green screens.

GC: I’m not showing those here because it’s a different project, but it was created in China as well. There are actually a lot of projects created by artists around the replica painting villages around Shenzhen; it’s becoming a bit of a theme. The idea was to create software that simulated the way a human paints. It’s not just a question of using a Photoshop filter and stylizing brushstrokes, it’s about making the computer reproduce the motions, which creates an animation. It’s a dynamic process you can watch unfold. Then I send the resulting final image to a painter, to reproduce the image the machine created by trying to imitate the way humans paint. It’s a feedback loop that eats itself, along the lines of anthropocentrism, and the way we always consider the machine to be compliant to our desires, like a tool. I want to show that there’s a gray area.

Paint it Back (Feedback) 2015

CR: And the feedback loop continues, because most people experience this piece as a jpeg image of a painting, on your website.

GC: Yes, it keeps going. I like circling things back onto themselves. And it’s interesting to think about copyright with this kind of work, to figure out what kind of contract to draw up with collectors and galleries. Maybe there’s a way to mess with things on that level as well, to let these things circulate freely. I want to release the files online, and maybe even the animation, as open software. And maybe have a human remake the files? It’s still a work in progress.

CR: Okay. And what about Vorstellung, the video of the kitten with the sculpture of itself? Is this another reflection of your interest in reproductions, copies, and fakes?  

GC: That video is tied to a project we did in Quebec and that we’re going to do in Brussels. It’s similar, but it’s more about the state of data. We find lots of videos online, including that one of the kitten that I just love. I think it’s insane, this kitten fighting against himself. It’s exactly how we react to artworks, by clawing at our own image. But this cat’s attitude, its desperation, its desire to communicate and recognize itself… I’m very interested in animals, which makes Dominique laugh. Especially videos of inter-species interactions, when unrelated animals help each other out. We have a tendency to think that animals exist solely by conditioned reflexes. Why do they help each other?

DS: It’s very instinctive.

GC: But what’s instinct? Anyway, I like finding videos on the internet. Some are really dumb, others are very kitsch but it’s all part of digital folklore. In the “Extinct Memory” project we set up a mesh network by using a pirate box, like they did during Occupy Wall Street. I’m interested in networks that are cut off from the internet. It’s a setup composed of dozens of autonomous wifi routers that broadcast information. So we broadcast these videos we find on the internet, we extract them from the internet to place them in these closed networks, and in the exhibition space, we have lots of networks you can connect to from your phone. The exhibition also exists as a totally closed network.

CR: Have you had the chance to meet artists from here who work in the same media and on similar topics? 

GC: We met the new media department at CAFA, and we had the feeling that these things are just getting started here.

DS: The new media section is under the “experimental art” department.

Dislocation IV (2010)

CR: There’s been several editions of the new media triennial in Beijing already, and there are a few art and technology centers popping up, like Shanghai’s Chronus Art Center. Can you tell me a bit more about these works here, Dislocation IV?

GC: They are human generated images. I hacked a printer to turn it into a machine that I can attach my arm to. I hold a pen and the machine guides the drawings. The images it prints via my arm, are sourced from an image generating software that creates virtual cities.

CR: Thanks so much, I’m looking forward to seeing the finished exhibition.

GC: Thanks for stopping by.

This interview was conducted in Beijing (and translated from French) by Kira Simon-Kennedy for China Residencies.