Of Buddies, Offspring and Artificial Mythology


We’re in Strepy, in Belgium. What you see behind me
is a boat lift, it is the biggest boat lift
in the world. I’ve been invited to create
a project here, an Artificial Mythology project, which I have entitled Offspring. What I find interesting
about this place, apart from the sheer size
of this machine, is if you look at the landscape here, it’s completely man-made,
engineered. The trees look as if they’ve been
photoshopped onto the hillside. In a way, it is emblematic
of the era we find ourselves in, where we, humans, have become
the managers of our world. We’re in charge,
for better or for worse. Nobody will come and rescue us. We need to be creative
if we are to survive. Some people talk of ‘steered’ evolution,
or ‘intentional’ evolution. Another thing
that struck me here is this: the elements that connect the cables to the 1000-ton counterweights
of the elevator are what I call “buddies”. I’ve been a buddy spotter
for as long as I can remember. Once you start noticing them,
you realize they’re everywhere. Buddies are all around us. And I started asking myself questions. What do they mean?
What are they? If buddies were a metaphor,
what would they be a metaphor of? And one day, it hit me: buddies are, quite litterally, the human face of technology. And I started using them as masks, notably in a performance I did
in the Brazilian rainforest, entitled “I Am
a Techno-human Animal”. I also enlarge them, making giants of these everyday
taken-for-granted objects, paying them tribute, revealing their dignity and mystery, like modern-day
Easter Island statues. I come from a family of teachers. My grandparents taught
in a little school only 10 km away from the frontline,
from the trenches, during WW1. They had to protect themselves
against mustard gas attacks. My parents were also
both teachers, in Africa. I grew up in the Congo
in the ’50s et ’60s, in the eastern province of Kivu,
near the border with Rwanda. My dad filmed
these images of the children during a festival at the school
where he was headmaster. I think of my work
as artificial mythology, a poetic frame of reference for these times
of accelerating change, ill-defined angst,
collective paralysis, anger, and all sorts
of regressive behaviour, times that are scary
but also full of potential. It is important that we stay calm. One way to do that
is to put our lives into perspective, to look at the big picture. That’s what mythology does. I use the word “artificial” because I think of this mythology
as a project, something we must engineer. It has nothing to do with escapism. It’s about survival. We need to find meaning for ourselves
in the real world, using the best information
available about it, and make it vibrate
in the language of dreams. This information is collected
and given to us by our researchers, who are observing, probing,
measuring, comparing, very rigorously,
very methodically, continuously expanding
the various frontiers of knowledge, and fully harnessing the exponential rise
in computing power. The information that is pouring in
is initially fragmented into hundreds of domains
and sub-domains. But gradually,
this raw information is gelling into a narrative about our situation
in time and in space. And this picture,
the Big Picture, is just epic. To sum it up in one sentence, we’ve discovered that the universe
is best thought of not as the place
in which we find ourselves, but as a process. And this is a stunning realization: the universe is a process
of which we are part. It is ongoing. The human species
is itself a work in progress. The master word is ‘ongoingness’. Everything that is and ever was is entangle and ongoing. This is the theatre
in which our lives unfold. We’re part of an ongoing play that started
billions of years ago. What will we spawn? The Artificial Mythology logo
is reminiscent of the icon in the bottom right corner
of our media players, meaning ‘expand to full screen’, look at the big picture. In the middle is the sun. So the arrows also represent
our expansion outwards, into the solar system
and beyond. Wouldn’t it be nice to see it appear
on our rocketships and spacecraft, a logo that does not represent
a company, a country
or an organisation, but that represents us,
all of us, the children of the solar system. As an artist, I want
to develop this poetic vision, a modern mythology, that is progressive,
not regressive, that is relevant for us
and for our offspring, whatever form that offspring
may take: biological, augmented,
robotic, cyborg, or streams of pure intelligence
whizzing through the galaxy, who knows? Technological acceleration
is now a reality we all experience. It is pervasive and will increasingly become
more physical, more intimate. Paradoxically,
I think it can increase our awareness of deep time and of the ancient forces that both
manifest themselves through us and shape us, like the genetic code
in each of our cells, that has been replicating
for billions of years, or the atoms
that make up our bodies, that come from ancient stars. I call these buddymasks
the ‘ancestors’. When a boat passes in the boat lift, the mechanism is activated, the counterweights
are set in motion, and the ancestors rise,
as if from the depths of time. The whole boat lift becomes a sort of gigantic,
dreamlike, time machine. We look at the cyborg babies
under the galactic skies. And they look back at us,
their ancestors…