Remember the first computers before their worldwide conquest. Although practical, they were bulky, unsightly and, above all, slow. But in a few years of development, they have become an indispensable tool with seemingly unlimited functionality. Now that we are used to their efficiency, do we have the patience to go back to an old model? The answer to this question should determine the extent to which we are able to step back from our increasing use of electronic tools. Like other artists, Marie Molins explores our relationship to the digital by applying low-tech principles; her project “NO SCREEN” is halfway between design, media archaeology, and reverse engineering.
With a degree in media archaeology, a discipline that studies the impact of the integration of technology in our societies, Marie realised during her PhD that everything she had learned about digital media up to that point was wrong. What we see on our screens is not a reproduction of the physical reality we experience. When we face the camera, our image is recreated by a series of pixels in a virtual form, but never has any materiality other than that of the hardware elements of the computer. Where it really exists is in the physical object, each element of which can be taken apart. In A geology of Media, theorist Jussi Parikka reminds us that there is no media as such, everything comes from the earth. On the other hand, the philosopher Vilem Flusser notes our fascination with technological objects as totems or magical objects. Marie thinks that this fascination will disappear once we understand that the computer in our hands is only earth.
To do so, she seeks to put the human being back at the centre of digital creation, while moving away from the idea of an interface. Her main motivations are based on the reduced use of digital processes. The first is based on a personal observation: in digital art exhibitions, the technical side prevails over the conceptual message and its scope. We therefore see a profusion of technological objects whose functioning and intention we do not understand. The second is that we spend a good part of our daily lives looking at screens, the artist wants to propose an alternative to the permanent visual spectacle we experience. The last motivation is ecological; we have become accustomed to digital objects without having a clear idea of how they are constructed, nor of their environmental impact.
Marie therefore takes up the basic principles of digital technology, namely immersion, communication, interaction and interactivity between materials, while seeking to show us what is hidden behind our screens. The idea then comes to her to create an object, or more broadly a space, in which the materials, their mechanism and the energy that animates them will create a form of information, and will be visible to the public. Imagine typing on a computer keyboard and being able to observe the entire mechanism and the routing of the information until the sign appears on the screen. As with an interface, Marie wants to translate energy into a signal, and show us its progress from start to finish. In reference to the No School for their low tech approach and their sense of collective, she calls her project “NO_SCREEN”.
The artist then engages in a design process combined with reverse engineering to create her work. To begin with, she had to deconstruct a computer and study each material, in what form the material conducted energy, and whether or not the communication signals between the materials were visible. The metals and minerals were raw before being polished, washed, manufactured and then integrated into the circuitry of a motherboard for example. Then Marie tries to understand how the interaction of these materials with energy will be transformed into action. Technically, implementing such a process should be quite difficult through a single object; given the quantity of materials and the complexity of the mechanism, logic leads Marie to consider the immersive installation as a medium, as if the audience were inside the machine.
This is where the design issues come in; how do the parts fit together? Will there still be a need for manufactured products? Do the pieces need to be positioned against a wall? Will there be any levers to activate? What is the reading direction of the work? How does the interaction between the work and the public take place? In what form will the information be translated: an object, an essence, words? To answer these questions, Marie needs to surround herself with experts: a geologist for the materials, an architect for the layout, and an engineer for the computer operation. She draws the sketches of the rocks and imagines how to cut them to facilitate their interlocking, she thinks of producing energy by friction in the manner of a dynamo. She visualises the installation in a 10m2 room to give the public a feeling of globality, as they will have to perform a series of gestures to activate it.
This is the way the experience should be: the room will certainly be circular, panoramic, to give a fluidity to the process. The person will have to remain in the room throughout the experience and will not be able to leave until the end, with only a glass door separating them from the outside. At the entrance, there will be a written protocol that the person must follow. He or she will have to activate a crank that will send the message to the machine, and then contemplate the path of the message through the circuits. At each stage, points are activated to show where the message is, for example crystals that light up. By the time the message made its way through the circuits, ten minutes would have passed. At the end, the person will retrieve the information form that he or she has produced through this mechanism.
For the time being, Marie is collecting the pieces one by one and is considering the possibility that the installation will remain at the draft stage. She has counted about thirty materials, some of them rarer and more expensive than others, which can be a problem if they are to be reproduced on a human scale. So one solution would be to reduce the installation to the size of an aquarium in which materials with piezoelectric properties could produce light or a heat source. The principle of activation by a crank would remain the same, but the overall mechanism would require more manufactured and electronic objects, which would conflict with Marie’s original intention.
However, other alternatives exist, notably in the form of scientific fiction; a book of mechanical explanations of the whole project, information on the conductivity of materials, with sketches and illustrations. This format is part of her skill set, and meets the conceptual expectations of the project as it deals with the creation of information without a digital interface. This would allow her to remain at the speculative stage, or to complement the installation. She could create a collective of fictional characters as she is already used to doing. Most importantly, the cost is much more affordable and she would no longer have the dilemma of over-production and a huge environmental footprint.
Marie Molins has set herself the task of exposing the circuits of information in digital instruments as in an open book.
By combining an artistic approach and a design methodology, she offers us the possibility of enriching our perception of our tools, and invites us to take a moment of contemplation.
“Maybe radical art today is about not producing in a world in which we have the opportunity to constantly over-produce.” Our excesses in terms of consumption, whether of resources, images or products, have contributed to the generalisation of a counter-movement and an artistic trend that values sobriety. This does not always mean technophobia, but rather seeking a healthy balance between new and old technologies. Marie Molins is one of those who adopt this approach; by blurring the lines between art and design, she studies and experiments with this fragile balance.
Originally from Avignon, Marie was destined to pursue literary studies. After only one year of preparatory classes, she opts for an artistic path and enters the Ecole Supérieure d’Art et de Design de Valence. There, she is pushed to choose between art and design, which she will not do as she enrols in art, while continuing to take graphic design courses on the side. Soon enough, she realises that the idea of digital technology is problematic for her for several reasons. The first is due to her computer, her main working tool, which gives up the ghost twice, contributing to the artist’s terror of the object. The second is due to the realisation that even computer specialists often don’t know what the breakdown is due to, repairing it is almost a matter of luck. Finally, Marie notes that digital objects are treated by those around her, and more broadly by society, as objects of fascination, magical, sacred totems.
While she rejects this form of lobotomisation, she learns code, and seeks to understand how the computer works. When she seeks support from her art teachers, she gets nothing but criticism and ends up turning to the design experts, who are much more familiar with the subject she wants to tackle. She then discovers that she is not the only one who shares an aversion to digital objects, and that the subject has been widely studied. Marie decided that she would pursue her commitment and show how the digital world conditions our behaviour and ways of doing things, through her art. But she poses a new problem: how to translate what we do with the digital, other than through a digital device?
According to one of her mentors, the best way to captivate an audience is to tell them a story. And in a society where culture is marked by the written word, a book can be a powerful tool of persuasion. The artist therefore makes the book, the emblem of knowledge, one of her main mediums. She begins to write scientific and archaeological articles in which she relates false digital discoveries and links them together. By the time she reaches her fifth year of study, she has already collected a series of journals and created a mythology around her stories; her science fictions are a mixture of creating artefacts from the future, talking to fictional experts, and researching real things like working methods. The aim is to be credible enough to be taken seriously by potential readers, and at the same time to blur the boundaries of reality in a subtle way.
Marie’s work is comprehensive; she draws and creates organisational diagrams, and crosses her science fiction articles with philosophy. She is particularly interested in Object Oriented Ontology, which removes the human from the centre of the universe and places it on the same level as non-living objects. This perception leads the artist to question her relationship with objects, from their form to their materials. Thus, she steps back from her productions to give them meaning and continuity, but also to reflect on the use of raw materials, which will come a little later in her work. Moreover, Marie, who had already got into the habit of creating teams of fictitious researchers, makes the whole thing more complex by creating alter-egos herself who produced works of art from the pseudo-discoveries. This is how she brings to life a certain Romain Debré; Marie pretends to be an Erasmus student in the studio of this character, whose legitimacy as an artist is already established internationally. Thanks to the well-orchestrated construction of a so-called collaborative project, and no doubt to gender bias, she manages to convince the jury of her school of the veracity of his existence without too many efforts.
Marie continues this study project and expands her collection to about twenty books. She assigns ISBNs to them for credibility, although these refer to images of ham. All that remains is to introduce the works to the public. With the help of the ESAD Valence librarian, she begins with the school library. She then goes to the municipal libraries, then to the Avignon art school, and even to Brussels, where she is invited to exhibit her work. There, she receives an offer to buy from someone who thought she had a real object of knowledge in their hands, and not an art object. Despite some feedback from intrigued librarians, the project is a success.
The entry into the PhD in Arts Research is a new stage for the artist who once again confronts the amateurs of digital technologies. However, this time, it is only to keep the good aspects. Marie adopts another posture and trains herself in reverse engineering; to understand where we are going, we must start by understanding where we come from. She solders, deconstructs materials, looks at low-tech artists such as Benjamin Gaulon or Quentin Destieu, and observes: we are witnessing a profusion of digital artworks, and yet each artist has their own practice, which makes theorising a movement much more complex today and in constant evolution. She formulates the subject of her thesis: why are digital artworks so similar? How do we classify them?
In conversation with the ZKM, whose curators are asking the same question, Marie learns that there is no real protocol, the sorting is done on the basis of technological devices, techniques, performative or interactive aspects. In the course of her research, she discovers an article from the MIT press on computer simulation, and wonders if it is applicable to artworks. So she creates a system in which she defines a precise time and space, and takes the classification data in order to give a fingerprint to each work. After having analysed nearly 200 works, Marie selects 50 with which she demonstrates their similarity through the use of materials and the process of connecting them with the viewer. Beyond the distribution system she has just created, she draws the same conclusion as the philosopher Marshall McLuhan: the medium is the message. Digital artworks use mediums that condition the way we perceive the message, and therefore the final information.
Marie finishes her thesis in 2019, after which she moves to Caen where she teaches graphic design in a school and is in charge of Erasmus partnerships. Although art remains her main focus, she also works as a freelance UI designer, and continues to develop her thesis for a potential publication in a UK publishing house. Her project NO_SCREEN, also in development, is a fine composition that follows the thread of her thoughts and feelings about digital technology through the stages of her journey.
Marie Molins has made a radical choice: not to make any. She likes to mix the codes of design with an artistic approach, to change mediums, to make philosophy evolve, and then to move between fiction and reality.
By making the creative process more complex, she demonstrates that the richness of a work of art lies in its different levels of interpretation.
While interdisciplinarity between the arts and other fields is celebrated through internationally renowned institutions such as CERN or MIT, the academic art world continues to put the brakes on. This is particularly true in schools, where budding artists are not always encouraged to stand out and open themselves up to other practices. While the older generation ensures that codes and customs are respected by their peers, the younger generation looks to the future, experiments, feeds itself and gives new meaning to the arts. In addition to the popularisation of digital tools, comes the democratisation of hybrid works as witnessed in the last two decades. So who are the artists of the future? Are we watching the rebirth and even the recognition of polymathic artists?
Too open, too political, not feminist enough, asserting one’s free artistic expression requires courage. Marie Molins is one of those who have been confronted by the stiffness of the school for their techno-curiosity. However, the field of digital art is gaining more and more ground in French schools, following recent developments in the art market. The more established artists have expressed their attraction to new technologies, the more digital creations have flocked to public and private institutions. With this, we have entered an era of normalisation of the use of new technologies in the arts. Many today do not hesitate to take advantage of the situation by creating from AI, NFT or simply an abundance of digital objects, in order to gain notoriety. The famous auction house Sotheby’s has already launched a platform in the metaverse in 2021 in response to the phenomenon, contributing to the generalisation of these practices and encouraging artists to adopt this new posture without necessarily understanding the consequences.
Of course, not all artists who create digital objects do so for the sole purpose of making money. But it shows us that there is clearly a craze for new technologies which, according to Marie, combined with the social networking frenzy, can be dangerous. Relevant issues take a back seat to creation, artists are more concerned with the image and the message transmitted by the medium than with the critical message. This explains the profusion of digital artworks, all so similar and yet so unique. If we think about it, this does not differ greatly from the classical pattern of art history; the pompier (academic) art has also seen an excess of similar paintings in the use of mediums and themes. These simply represent the traditional values of 19th century European society, which we know proved to be detrimental.
Except that today, we are collectively facing a climate emergency and a growing inequality gap. Artists will not escape this; their role must evolve, it has become absolutely necessary to take a critical look at artistic creation, to reinvent a healthy way of creating, and to reaffirm positive values. Increasingly, the younger generation is disobeying education, breaking down the barriers between disciplines, and favouring collaborative work. Projects with a scientific, social, political and environmental focus are slowly growing in tandem with public financial support programmes. An encouraging new trend is emerging, with the hope that it will also become more widespread in the near future.
Although the academic system is still archaic, scientific and technological advances have given new impetus to polymathic, interdisciplinary, or Swiss Army knife artists.
These women and men, working together to redefine the limits of the arts and sciences, are gradually introducing to the general public the values essential to building a desirable future.