Sandra and Gaspard Bébié-Valérian have been working together since 2004. They explore issues related to the environment, energy, food, natural and hyperindustrial resources and the constituent powers of our society.
Identifying early on under the name Art-Act for their commitment to both art and activism, the artist duo Sandra and Gaspard Bébié-Valérian now live in Ganges in southern France, where they co-direct Oudeis, a contemporary art center dedicated to crossovers among art, technology and media, as a space for reflection, observation, study, experimentation, fabrication and research for art.
Art-Act’s installations assemble organic, chemical and electronic materials, often placing viewers in a position of choice, active responsibility or even emancipation. Their latest project, MyCore, partly developed in residence this year at Shadok in Strasbourg, aims to create a program for remediation among humans, plants and animals, by studying and experimenting with the many possibilities offered by the field of mycology.
How did the “MyCore” project come about?
Gaspard: Initially, MyCore spun off from another project that we did a few years ago: Viridis, the spirulina farm. We work with spirulina and we wanted to pair it with a video game. The project’s motto was “no survival without cooperation”. We were thinking about alternative work models, how to work collectively. We introduced these issues while remaining intentionally ambiguous in the mechanics of a video game that took advantage of the relative disconnection between the screen and a physical situation that was subject to real and everyday constraints (energy, time, weather). The point was to collectively manage and take on responsibilities, to make the right decisions for the spirulina farm in the Cévennes region, in the mountains, using sensors to monitor the growth of the spirulina in real time.
The border between game and reality was blurred, as the game itself was set in a post-apocalyptic future with only a few survivors. Spirulina was one of the possible remedies for survival. Then there was a kind of treasure hunt to create your own farm, with an artisanal approach, as you had to build your farm with whatever you could find: chemical inputs made with nails and lemon, a motor tinkered from a wind turbine. These DIY skills would allow you to progress in the game by accumulating points and investing them in the real farm, in a rather complex interrelationship. Spirulina is a micro-algae, a unicellular organism. Yet a number of players regularly asked for updates, were concerned about its condition. During the few weeks in which they experienced the game, a real relationship developed between the culture and the community. It was funny how people projected empathy onto the spirulina.
Sandra: One researcher even asked if she could have some spirulina in order to conduct research on the decontamination of heavy metals… From there we worked more on empathy, as we were inspired by what people had developed with Viridis and being in contact with a culture. It was intriguing to see how much the players cared about what would happen to the spirulina.
You often incorporate a fictional aspect…
Gaspard: In our work there is often this back-and-forth between fiction and reality, where fiction reinforces reality. In the past, we started out with very political, activist projects, before becoming increasingly interested in fiction. It’s also a way of breaking free from the absolute veracity of real-life data, as we are neither journalists nor documentarians.
Excerpt from Viridis, the spirulina farm, Sandra and Gaspard Bébié-Valérian, 2012-2015:
After “Viridis”, your projects focused more on energy and the environment.
Gaspard: Yes, we did a project on shale gas in 2015-2016. We went to Dallas as part of a U.S. residency organized by Institut Français. We were less interested in shale gas itself than in its environmental and social consequences. In Dallas, as elsewhere, there are a lot of problems linked to fracking, especially earthquakes. To us an earthquake seems enormous, magical, something you can’t stop. So we were fascinated by the fact that you could provoke artificial earthquakes. At first we thought it was anecdotal, magnitude 2 or 3, but no, sometimes we get magnitudes 5 or 6, where subterranean layers were really destabilized.
After arriving in Dallas we thought we would make a sort of interactive documentary, reaching out to local people and getting their stories. But soon enough we realized that it was really complicated, that people were happy to share their stories off-the-record, but not on camera.
Sandra: It’s true, for example, we had a few contacts through the University of Texas in Dallas, who contacted other researchers, even activists with whom we had a good rapport, but as soon as we got down to practicalities, it was like, “no, sorry, can’t do it,” they got cold feet. There’s a big trust in Texas for fossil energy. The Perot Museum of Nature and Science, for example, which architecture is comparable to the Guggenheim in Bilbao, includes a section on energy, but in fact it glorifies petroleum and is financed by one of the big families that exploits oil drilling and now fracking. When we visited the museum, there was an exhibit on renewable energy, which Texas is leaning toward—it has marshes, wind, sun, everything. But the exhibit was pretty stark, whereas right next to it was Luna Park, with an oil drilling simulator that you could sit inside to experience all the fun of oil drilling.
So we decided to develop a fiction that explored more generally the concept of disaster, while integrating real elements. We researched local documentation on the 20th century and found many cases of cities being destroyed by hurricanes, cyclones, tornados, then rebuilt, then destroyed and rebuilt again. Following this dynamic, we also used archival images from the Dust Bowl, a period of intense dust storms over a decade that led to droughts and over-farming in the great plains of the South, which in turn resulted in 3 million people migrating west to California.
Gaspard: The archival images are stupefying, it’s like Mad Max. You’ve probably already seen them, they’re part of the cultural imagery of the 20th century.
John Steinbeck wrote about it in “The Grapes of Wrath”, Woody Guthrie sang about it in his songs…
Sandra: We were interested in how the relationship between industry and environment transforms societies in the long-term. So we created a performance and an installation that both used a common modified seismograph, reading in real time a score of seismic data, punctuating and advancing the narrative thread that we had developed. Along with the written variations read by the seismograph, the seismic variations are sonified in the low tones, leading to a kind of climax at the end of the performance. There was also empathy: one of the narrators is a believer in the system, he believes what he’s told, by patriotism; the other narrator follows reluctantly, he has a feeling that something is not right but he follows along, not having the means to resist. It alternates between the two perceptions, antagonistic but complementary, allowing us to empathize with each one.
What is rising, teaser, Sandra and Gaspard Bébié-Valérian, 2015:
Another project is the “Urinotron” installation, which was awarded the Pulsar Prize in 2017.
Gaspard: It was pretty funny to present Urinotron at EDF Foundation [EDF is France’s public electricity and gas company]. It’s a microbial battery based on urine, so with a positive charge, and with Dorian Reunkrilerk, we even wanted to reinject the current produced by the network. The project was political, in the sense that we built a functional installation using materials that are accessible to anyone to produce electricity from a waste product. But it was also utopic, in the sense that even now, we plan to use the projet in other ways or think about micro-scale or delocalized variations. This project made us consider even more deeply our dependence on technology and materials, living organisms that can themselves develop a form of alchemy, even “magic”. Urinotron is made of glass, it integrates copper, aluminum, charcoal, salt. Its operation is based on a very rational electrochemical reaction, but it also asserts a certain level of poetical activation, as it’s based on poor materials whose uses remain confidential.
Sandra: It’s the same thing with MyCore, even if it involves other organisms, in this case different types of mushrooms. There are several levels of agility, and we’re trying to examine how these levels are connected, or how they can communicate. And if there is no communication, how to invent or extrapolate it. At one point we examined the symbiotic underground activity between plants and mushrooms, especially how mushrooms help plants to get nutrients, which they help themselves to along the way. There’s a whole section of sustainable agriculture that is considering introducing symbiotic mycorrhizae in the soil. Mycelium creates a giant underground network that helps plants to communicate with each other. We were particularly interested in transformation within the fungi kingdom, and how mushroom remediation can also be remediation for humans, a remediation of our state, just as humans already have a very mystic relationship with mushrooms.
Gaspard: More than a project, it’s a cycle deconstructed into several modules. The first one integrates kombucha, where we’re cultivating a giant kombucha “mother” in the shape of a king scallop. The idea is to make a shamanic drum out of kombucha skin to play the impulses of organisms monitored by an interface based on electrodes sensing micro-variations in electricity. Another module is based on physarum, which isn’t exactly a mushroom but rather a myxomycete, a sort of hybrid between vegetable and mushroom. It has a very interesting capacity for communication, which can develop logical conditions to develop scenarios or activate data. Some people talk about physarum machines. We want to work with physarum to explore micro-performativity over time, in order to develop conditions and variations.
Sandra: We want to develop a scenario that shows how physarum, as an autonomous agent, can impact us humans.
Gaspard: With MyCore, we’re also exploring inter-species communication, for example making kombucha communicate with physarum, or monitoring the electromagnetic activity of mycelium. It’s not that simple, there are specific methodologies for eliminating the causes of parasites, disturbance from ambient electromagnetism, telephony, using specific or irregular micro-voltages and temporalities. During a residency in Ireland we monitored data that differed greatly depending on the mushrooms.
Sandra: In our current work with mushrooms, symbiosis inspired the rules for a board game where the more competition there is, the weaker the system gets. And the more cooperation and symbiosis you create, the better the system operates. In this sense, I find Anna Tsing’s book The Mushroom at the End of the World very interesting—the link between mycelium and the forest on a symbiotic level, but also what it reveals about the social and political aspects of preserving the forest. She shows how nostalgia for a territory can lead to destruction after destruction. Trying to preserve at all costs is not really the solution.
Gaspard: For now we’re working on how elements are interlinked, in terms of fiction or structure; we’re also working on laboratory-type situations to test if a series of experiments is conclusive. These days I would like to explore physarum in hypothetical situations of failure, as in the example of the maze, where it runs into dead ends. It will encounter them, through trial and error, advance thanks to its capacity to communicate with all the ramifications of its organism. In our first tests, we try to see how the physarum develops according to different types of food, agar-agar, reliefs. I also want to submit the physarum to micro-voltages, to see if it’s repulsed or not. And finally, modify the set-up according to everything we’ve learned, and see if the physarum will surprise us!
Gaspard: MyCore is a project that will evolve over time. In the visual arts, people talk about studio time, series or periods. There’s a bit of that for us too: a period to let ideas and their possible forms grow, but that also resembles scientific research, with observation, experimentation, analysis and conclusions. Without belonging to this scientific body, we can understand a lot of it, while taking the liberty of adopting empirical approaches and making inferences that are not random but designated by their potential. We seek to give meaning and convey a taste for what is possible, even in its strangeness.