Nicolas Maigret is an artist and curator active since the beginning of the 2000’s. His practice revolves around the investigation of media, using its bugs and malfunctions as starting points for intervention. It is from these imperfections that Nicolas highlights the identities of the media he analyses and tamper with, bringing up evidences of their functioning.
The creativity stemming from his hacking interventions is shaped by the will of exploring in depth each system and machine he chooses as object of analysis. The evidences he exposes are perceptual ones: the sensations evoked and the thoughts provoked by his pieces lead to a state of awareness; a disabling one.
What happens in front of his works is the encounter, with which we could define the secret life of the machines. The disabling triggered by this uncovered life is due to the fact that these machines are not harmless: they are the tools for wielding power and for programming behaviors and trends; by extent: history.
I met Nicolas Maigret at the beginning of October, at Le Pavillon Vendôme in Clichy, Paris. On that occasion, he accompanied me through the exhibition titled Global Proxy, narrating to me the works shown.
Global Proxy can be considered a retrospective of Nicolas’ works, the majority of which is the result of collaborations, highlighting one of the main features of Nicolas’ practice and way of thinking. The relational dynamics are therefore activated from the very genesis of each work, finding complete realization in the restitution to the public, be it a performance, a video, or a 3d rendering.
The works shown at Le Pavillon Vendome don’t function just as devices for exposing the hidden logics of todays’ systems and tools, but also as amplifiers of resonance. The way they resonate translate a specific mode of perceiving, for instance, the space around us, leading to the consideration of geography, and here I am quoting Kodwo Eshun, as chronography, in an age when, as Virilio argues, we have begun to inhabit time.
This becomes clear in many of the works shown: geographical conceptions and depictions of the world are read through time-bound media (such as a record player in Flat Earth Society); the distances among nations are measured through Ping round-trip delay time (as in UN-Mapping); the time to travel from point A to point B drops drastically when we follow the trajectory of a military missile (a few minutes to go from the Netherlands to Great Britain, as shown in War Zone).
Geography is not the only notion being altered and reshaped by Nicolas; the issues tackled by the artist include the concept of innovation and the risks of ideological manipulation hidden behind it, as well as the consensual behavior related to the predictability of language used in the art world according to the latest trends in new media arts and hacktivism.
Nicolas Maigret added many more details to my understanding of his work, through the interview that follows.
Martina Raponi: Global proxy is a phrase that evokes an image of interposition, interconnection, but it could also be connected to surveillance and piracy. These are all features you show and pursue in your own practice (collaborating with other people, hacking, exposing hidden structures of technology), while also being characteristics of our everyday. Why the title of the exhibition? How was it conceived?
Nicolas Maigret: The initial proposition for this show by the curators was meant to be articulated around the idea of collaborative practices in new media arts. We selected works I realized these last seven years under a collective or collaborative dynamic. Partly with the Art of Failure collective, and later with various artists, film-directors and developers (Jérôme Fino, Jérémy Gravayat, Brendan Howell, Yann Leguay, Nicolas Montgermont, Ivan Murit & Maria Roszkowska).
The title of the exhibition, Global Proxy, came up early in the process. As this exhibit deals with the global shift in society and in art practices, most of the projects are connected with the subjects of global scale and global information dynamics. The term Proxy is for sure related to The Pirate Cinema project and early online file-sharing practices, but also with the idea of considering each peer, and each artist, as a mediator in a global, sometimes viral, interconnected cultural juice.
Martina Raponi: I was particularly caught by the rooms of the exhibition which had an aural presence: a more environmental one for Pirate Cinema and Resonant Architecture, and a more subtle and discontinuous for Flat Earth Society and Un-Mapping. Somehow these relate to a new way of displaying and shaping the sense of geography and the relationships among different States across the Globe. How can the visualization and the rendering (or sounding) of the geographical connections among different places on Earth become of political value?
Nicolas Maigret: According to Bruno Latour the digital shift didn’t led us to more virtual, but to more materialization, to an embodiment through evidences of notions that were previously in the field of abstraction. In the instance of this exhibition, one can argue that the geographical dynamic of information exchange is a continuous ballet that has always existed, but today this dynamic is emphasized, densified, and materialized at the speed of electrical impulses, dynamic routing, and binary storage.
For instance, on the BitTorrent network, since the early days, surveillance is performed by external organizations. This can be university for statistics, private sub-contractors for copyright infringement, the cinema industry for trend-spotting, or even States.
The Pirate Cinema project, was an attempt to reverse engineered file sharing surveillance mechanisms (on BitTorrent), to divert those systems from their initial utilitarian purpose, and to make this vibrant file sharing activity and dynamics visible in real-time. Thus, with Brendan Howell we decode and screen live the fragments of files that are in the process of being shared among p2p users, resulting in an endless collage of the most shared files globally. The amazing aspect of that process is that, based on an IP addresses, you also can follow the sharing dynamics and its geographical dissemination.
On similar concerns, we could talk about UN-Mapping, a live cartography of the World based on network distances (using Ping round-trip delay time) rather than the usual metric distances. This project arises form the fact that today network distances are more and more relevant and valuable. In many specific contexts this can be more relevant than the actual geographical distances. Those digital distances are structuring new balance of power, and geo-economic-political scenarios (obvious in the case of High Frequency Trading). UN-Mapping is an attempts to make this visible, through a map based on the network distances.
This project is developed with Ivan Murit; technically, every few seconds, a ping is sent from the exhibition space to the governmental site of every main nation (the United Nations list). Based on the delay times at this very moment, a dynamic cartography is constantly updated.
Martina Raponi: Be it a subtle “ping”, a needle reading the hemispheres translated on vinyl, or the chaotic shreds of sound emitted by the video fragments shared peer to peer throughout the world, sounds and noises are always present in your works. What is your relation with sound? How is it included in the aesthetic presentations you offer?
Nicolas Maigret: I work on the notion of sound as an evidence, and sound as a mediator between a milieu and a distant observer, a probe that can be felt and experienced. Sound also offers a time-based experience of a given context, one that has no other reality than its very moment of reception. In the three projects you mentioned here, the perception of the sound is enhanced, it gains a virtual depth due to its history because of its status of probe and evidence. In other words, each of those sounds is a living memory of how and where it originated.
With UN-Mapping, the sound witnesses the transmission times from the exhibition space to 193 nation states. In Flat Earth Society, the sound witnesses an inaccessible dataflow recorder by satellites and shuttle missions. In The Pirate Cinema, the decoded movie chunks witnesses the communication dynamics, and the materiality of live digital transmission.
Martina Raponi: Flat Earth Society is a very seducing work due to the use of either obsolete conceptions of the world and tools which were used in the analog era, like the vinyl. Could you extend a bit about the starting point of the project, and how it practically developed? How did you and your peers from Art of Failure come up with the idea of the vinyl and which process of production did you follow?
Nicolas Maigret: Back in 2008, I was interested in materializing the abstraction of data that is endlessly collected as machine-language inside black boxes (literally explored earlier with System introspection). The idea of an army of satellites collecting data through their journeys around the globe, only available as code abstraction has been a starting point. Another starting point has been the idea that the earth surface could be seen as an engraved surface, a readable geological memory.
In this research to materialize the global topographic data, we found Nasa database resources (SRTM, Gtopo30). With Nicolas Montgermont, my main collaborator at the time, we decided to use the vinyl disc as the most appropriate materialization, which, first and foremost, can be read easily, and second, can recompose a visible cartography at its surface. Finally, because it can visually remind some ancient conceptions of the earth as a flat disc.
During this research we came across the Flat Earth Society, and organization that seeks to further the belief that the Earth is flat, and that its spherical representation is part of a conspiracy. This organization is a continuation of the ancient Myth of the flat Earth. It was established in 1956 by Samuel Shenton. Amazed by this contemporary society, and by the resemblance of their illustrations with our disc, we decided to use this name for the project. The introductory conference they gave in the 60’s is exhibited aside the disc in the show.
On a technical level, the production of the disc has been a complex task. We had to find a way to engrave a disc in the most transparent manner (without the usual filters and protections), and with an extremely precise rotation speed, so that each rotation of the disc-cutter would engrave topographic data so as to recompose a consistent image of a hemisphere on a face of the disc. This has been made possible thanks to Flo Kaufmann, which is a great artist/engineer capable of modifying and turning everything on a vinyl disc cutter.
Later, while experimenting with the first copies, I noticed that by using a specific lighting method we could make the entire Earth elevation appear visually on the disc. Basically: by using a very bright and punctual lighting (like a led) in the same direction as the viewer, the disc mirrors the light back to the viewer, and the micro-topography engraved distort the reflections, thus producing shades of grey depending on landform.
Martina Raponi: Even when not overtly shown, sound is always evoked somehow. I am thinking of the video War Zone and the Predictive Art Bot. On the one hand there is a mute collection of videos which shows tools of war traveling their trajectories until the collision point, on the other the silent predictive/predictable language which characterizes the art world and the demand of usage of certain “trendy” words. They therefore sound and speak differently. Why? In which other way do you let them speak and be perceived by the visitor?
Nicolas Maigret: War Zone coincides with a new approach. It marks the time when we started to explore the idea of “Innovation as a tool of political and economical propaganda”. The idea with “War Zone” was to haunt new technologies with the ghost of their military origins. To invite the evidence of a martial past, inside the slick and comfortable environment of hi-tech contemporary commodities.
Here using Google Earth as a contemporary descendant of satellite imagery and early US space program. Using a subjective camera angle, this work mimicks the trajectory, altitude, speed, and vibrations of historical missile launches, within the interface of Google Earth.
Concerning Predictive Art Bot: most of us are connected to mailing-lists, rss, social media, which can be niche networks specialized in media-arts, hacktivism or any other one. At some point, the consensual and conformist manner in which new trends appear and spread becomes striking, including how a given socio-political context, or let say a technological innovation directly brings its automatized art responses.
Often you would even see those quite predictable artistic responses many times in different flavors and in different countries, scales, or languages. That’s probably an effect of a common art and cultural background, a common ground of values, validated historical references, and consensual ways of doing appropriate art. The network bubble is probably also accelerating this process. When talking with friends and peers, we started to name that phenomenon “art-reflex”.
Recently, Steve Lambert gave a good commentary on that situation in his text “The tragedy of interesting projects”. Predictive Art Bot is a rough algorithm that “listens” to its context (let’s say the specialized media in a given field, capturing the headlines related for instance new-media arts and hacktivism), and produces automated art responses based on existing validated patterns. This twitter-bot (twitter.com/predartbot). It collects the new keywords, and trends as they appear.
Finally, it endlessly predicts future artworks in the form of news headlines: it is an automated and absurd exhaustion of the foreseeable trends. In the exhibited version, shown in an empty room, every new headline, produced once or twice a minute, leaves the space and the time to create a mental projection of what this proposition could be like. For instance: “A feminist land art piece divulging classified information about online dating”.
Martina Raponi: Language is also a prominent element in the Drone2000 video, in which images and spoken words contribute to the creation of a layer of interpretation which makes the drone failures’ videos appear under a different, perhaps dystopian, light.How was this project born?
Nicolas Maigret: This project is a new extension of the Drone2000 research.The idea was that autonomous flying machines and flying eyes have been a common place in early SF literature, often fashioning a really dark vision of the days to come.We are currently witnessing the implementation of these figures in our contemporary world and folklore. Millions of drone videos are uploaded, fulfilling every corners of earlier and actual fantasies. The aim with this video piece was to produce an encounter between those “prophecies of the past” and the recent urge for those autonomous flying eyes. All the video footage comes from online sharing platforms, and all the voice-overs come from quotes since 1911.
Martina Raponi: Resonant Architecture closes the show. This video embraces the visitor and releases somehow the intellectual tensions that the show is capable of creating. This doesn’t mean that the film is in itself of no interest or too relaxing. When watching it some questions are raised: How do you make buildings vibrate? Which structural and environmental identity is underlined through this process?
Nicolas Maigret: Resonant Architecture is a series of site specific events with an audience, that we developed on many outstanding buildings in Europe since 2006. Each building is chosen on the basis of its architectural qualities. We seek for buildings with a huge sonic potential, often made of metal, glass and wood. But we also select buildings because of their history, the context they are in, the features of their architecture, their function, and their sculptural impact.
Technically, we use infra-bass speakers for huge spaces, and transducers for smaller structures. We then scan the reaction of the building to a whole range of low frequencies. We select of few of the most effective frequencies that for instance shake different parts of the building (let say 32.3 Hz vibrate mainly the celling, and 48Hz the walls, etc…). Then we program a system to generate those frequencies into the speakers. What you can hear in the video documentation is basically what the audience could here around or inside the buildings.
Resonating the building is an activator, both for the acoustic potential of the place, but also for the audience. It activates an amazing variety of responses that go way beyond the obvious sonic qualities. People often start to look at the architecture in an active way. Noticing its materials, structures, junctions, celling, components.
They start to touch the materials with their hands and body, or even start noticing the way the light spreads in the space and so on. It produces great discussions afterward, involving even people who are totally distant from the art word. Each realization is such a specific event, that we decided in 2009 to work on video recordings with a film director (Jeremy Gravayat and later Jérome Fino).
Martina Raponi: A final question is about the publication you are working on, and which will be released in November. Can you tell me about it, what to expect from it, and where will the public be able to find it?
Nicolas Maigret: This book, made with the designer & researcher Maria Roszkowska, came as a logical extension of the Pirate Cinema project. During the different occasions on which this project was shown we’ve been collecting a massive amount of historical references, anecdotes, stories, geographical specificities, and visual artifacts on the subject of media piracy.
Somehow while reading on the subject, and collecting specialized books, we never came across a book made from an artistic perspective that actually covers the historical and geographical specificities of media Piracy. We decided two years ago to start working on a book, a sort of catalogue for an ideal virtual exhibition on the subject.
A compilation of stories about sharing, distributing, and experiencing cultural contents outside the boundaries of local economies, politics, or laws. A collection work, composed of visual research, rare documents, interviews, historical facts. The Part 1 deals with the echoes over time: stories that tend to repeat themselves in different moments of history. The Part 2 is about the warez scene, its structure, its visual culture, its slang and conventions. The Part 3 is about the anti-piracy technologies. A compilation of strategies since the invention of radio until today. The Part 4 is about the geographical specificities related to piracy and the piratical practices in situation of necessity. A collection of interviews from India, Cuba, Brazil, Mexico, Peru, Mali, China.