Exhibition view of “OttO,” Perrotin, Paris, 2018. Photo: Claire Dorn, © Laurent Grasso/ADAGP, Paris, 2018, Courtesy the artist & Perrotin

The Sensation of Science: A Conversation with Laurent Grasso

French conceptual artist Laurent Grasso recaptures something of the exciting uncertainty that characterizes scientific theories at the nexus of knowledge and belief. Inspired by the history of brilliant and beleaguered attempts to apply science to social well-being, he has been particularly influenced by Buckminster Fuller and the German physicist Winfried Otto Schumann. Like them, Grasso finds inventiveness by straddling chance and rationality. Drawing on what Fuller explained as “synergetics,” the phenomena of systems in transformation, and the behavior of isolated components, including human behavior, Grasso reveals a keen appetite for reinterpreting the science and aesthetics of social experiments. He also posits the possibility of art being entirely reasoned and rational. By re-creating experimental apparatus as artworks with multiple points of cultural and historical reference, he invites us to consider the point where what we know overlaps with mystery.

In “OttO,” a 2018 exhibition at Galerie Perrotin in Paris, Grasso painstakingly curated what he calls a “laboratory” of two- and three-dimensional works that serve as contemporary relics of past fashions in science. These works embody the spirit of the zeitgeist at the turn of the 20th century, when scientific discoveries became the basis for a series of far-fetched ideas about eradicating human ailments with electrical energy. Yet as much as science and its machines serve as source materials for Grasso, his works remain rooted in aesthetic interests, which adds a disturbing layer to things typically controlled by white-coated men experimenting on tormented patients. With the “Studies into the Past” paintings on panel, Grasso goes farther back in time, to the 15th century, shedding modern understanding of the earth and solar system to reconsider such manifestations of the divine as a total eclipse, a shooting star, and a dust cloud.

These works demonstrate his commitment to looking at humanity at its most vulnerable, when actions and energies decide our fate. The notion that one is subject to such external forces—or ephemeral energies, as Grasso sees them—serves as the substance for much of his recent work exploring parables of science, religion, and power and the possibilities of human understanding.

Exhibition view of “OttO,” Perrotin, Paris, 2018. Photo: Claire Dorn, © Laurent Grasso/ADAGP, Paris, 2018, Courtesy the artist & Perrotin

Rajesh Punj: What did you have in mind for “OttO?”
Laurent Grasso:
My intention was to color-code the spaces. In the first and second room, you had the movie OttO (2018) in an entirely darkened space, which led to two sculptures in the adjoining space. From the second into the third room, there was another sculpture and one small painting; and in the last room, one painting and another two sculptures, opposite to one another. The movie began as an exploration of Aboriginal land and sacred sites. There was a great deal of paperwork required in order to obtain all of the necessary authorizations to begin filming, along with rules about working in Australia’s bush. The film came about as a consequence of an invitation to participate in the 21st Sydney Biennale, and the first step consisted of a research trip in Uluru and Alice Springs. It became quite obvious that there was another world that needed further exploration—a rooted and resourced landscape outside of what was already very familiar to everyone.

RP: It is incredible that such a huge part of the country appears entirely ignored.
LG: Absolutely, it is like there is an unknown or uncharted territory to the country, where there is some access, but you have no amenities and no tourism as such, which by definition designates specific locations on the map. It is a very complicated territory for the people there. The desire to want to go there proved an incredibly sensitive subject. Rejecting the tourist trail for uncharted territory, my idea was to research Aboriginal sites in the desert, to try and understand how I could communicate and subsequently collaborate with them. With that in mind, the film project reflected a utopian desire to capture the radiation of such sacred sites. This follows from other film projects that I had done, where I used the camera as a tool to try to capture the “invisible.” Essentially all of my film projects to date occupy this space of the other; they occupy the edge of reality, between the visible and the non-visible.

One of the last projects I did was Élysée (2016), a movie about the French President’s office. Shooting with 15 people, we tried to show the “ghost” of the place, and while we were filming, we had the idea to use a macroscopic lens and employ a crane for slower motion shots, through which we were trying to reveal something of the palace that we don’t usually see. The idea—of an enclosed political environment—was much the same with the sacred sites in the Northern Territory. The making of OttO involved the use of a drone and a thermal camera to illustrate, through pockets of color, the radiation residing over a site as vast and uninhabitable as the Australian bush and to demonstrate the power of the place through visuals. To emphasize such sensitivities, I introduced digitized spheres into the landscape to visualize the secret mythologies known as “songlines.” The narrative of OttO takes place between four different locations, and by going from one part to the other, I intended to collect and inherit stories used by indigenous peoples to navigate their way through the bush.

Exhibition view of “OttO,” Perrotin, Paris, 2018. Photo: Claire Dorn, © Laurent Grasso/ADAGP, Paris, 2018, Courtesy the artist & Perrotin

RP: The Aboriginal way of navigating the land is highly sophisticated. We, on the other hand, appear to need landmarks to negotiate our space in the same way.
LG: A rock for them is not a rock, but something much more substantial, whose situation and circumstances trigger a series of ceremonies. While filming, we had access to four different sacred sites, which are all connected by a particular mythology and narrative. Crucially, the idea was not to involve the Aborigines in a documentary on the issues of their people, because I think for an artist or actor, it has become standard to posit yourself trying to solve something. For me, the notion of a collaboration served to understand the land as their landscape. My idea was more a kind of collaboration with the communities that I met in a project of fiction. It is not that we were unaware of all of the problems inherent in the bush—it wasn’t something we could avoid, and the entire time, we were reminded of the situation of such sacred sites—but the idea was to look at a situation through the eyes of art and to deliver an artwork, which was a real change of strategy.

The rest of the works in the Perrotin show aim to find a way to link the Aboriginal approach to the landscape with a series of mechanisms and machines from the beginning of the 20th century that were intended to cure people by use of electronic frequencies. When we were doing research for the movie, we discovered a very interesting scientific story that I am not entirely sure about. It concerns Winfried Otto Schumann, who discovered that the earth has a frequency—in the way that a radio has many frequencies—of 7.83 hertz; if you are not connected to this frequency, you can experience different kinds of deficiencies. It is not completely scientific, but you have a lot of tools today disseminating this frequency within our living environments.

RP: Is it that sacred sites have a greater or more intense frequency than urban or suburban Western landscapes? Are we less susceptible to heightened experience in our environs?
LG: The first time I traveled through the desert, I had the overwhelming feeling of it being a fundamentally new experience for me, because deserts are the oldest landscapes in the world, completely free of human beings, construction, and the build-up of the cityscape. Even in the mountains, you don’t have the same feeling because the desert is so big that you can’t quantify its space. It is beyond our ability to understand it in the same way as we do the urban environment, which subsequently makes it uninhabitable.

I create works of fiction, for which I employ not exactly scientific theory, but the sensation of science in order to induce a fiction and to site the spectator in a particular place. When you are in front of a sacred site, you are not likely to understand fully what is happening, because for the most part it is based on belief; what is going on at a particular place, whether religiously or mythologically induced, is not entirely proven. The same applies when you are in front of the frequency machines invented by Schumann and his contemporaries. You don’t know if there is any scientific evidence of what you are witnessing, and the same could be said for any kind of strange medicine. We still insist on using them, even when we don’t know what they do—it’s the “placebo effect.”

From the beginning, my interest has always been located somewhere between the visual and the invisible. So, the idea of using different materials for my projects is encouraged by my fascination with everything that isn’t present in the exhibition space. When I started my practice, I began by using sound waves, lights, and architecture to create more sensory “installations.” But I have also tried to stretch it further into more abstract or problematic spaces—for example, by employing frequencies, and light and sound waves, to induce a different kind of experience. I also researched hypnosis, and the hypnotic power of the work, because the idea of power is really important to me. Going back to Élysée, power proved the main idea behind the film, which applies to the film industry as much as to the art installation. There is the question of what kind of power is at play, where you have to change people’s minds, how to connect with the spectator, and what elements to include in the gallery space in order to influence the viewer.

Exhibition view of “OttO,” Perrotin, Paris, 2018. Photo: Laurent Grasso, © Laurent Grasso/ADAGP, Paris, 2018, Courtesy the artist & Perrotin

RP: Is it your intention to dismantle existing power structures by employing these techniques?
LG: Yes, of course. I am very interested in the power of institutions and those devices and apparatuses around us that “keep us in check.” As a consequence, I have done projects about military installations, surveillance architecture, and the Vatican as an organization. I am interested in religion as an institution, and in wider belief systems, as well as contemporary mythologies that influence the individual. I play with the same power structures that act as a critique. My position is one of not proposing pure criticism, while also withdrawing from a documentary-style approach; I employ criticism to create an artwork.

Solar Wind (2016), a very big public project in Paris, explores the sun’s activities. We have daily data about the sun, and I turned that constant feed of information into a light animation on a silo on the periphery of the city. It has since become a big signal—its background can become a little scary because of the magnetic storms that come from the sun, which are able to black out the city without warning. The work is about an ongoing fascination with beauty against an unpredictable background.

RP: Such apocalyptic beauty reminds me of your “Studies into the Past,” minute paintings that resemble 15th-century panel paintings, but with odd twists that depict strange phenomena. How do these works encapsulate your ideas?
LG: They explore the idea of beauty subject to the “wrath of God.” At a time when the world was utterly undiscovered—geographically, scientifically, culturally, and economically—such alien events were as incredible as they were apocalyptic.

RP: In what way are these works yours? They read as fanciful fables for the contemporary age.
LG: They are not just collages, they are total reconstructions. Sometimes the original references are recognizable—for instance, a painting with a sphere connected to an existing project was a reference to Mantegna. I also like to take one character or element of a painting, and with this scene everything is painted from the beginning. I don’t just attempt to create a contemporary collage against a historical background—we rebuild everything.

Exhibition detail of “OttO,” Perrotin, Paris, 2018. Photo: Romain Darnaud, © Laurent Grasso/ADAGP, Paris, 2018, Courtesy the artist & Perrotin

RP: So, you are interested in perceptions and understandings through time—what was known, what was believed, what was suspected.
LG: Going back to “OttO,” the first room included a machine inspired by Rudolf Steiner that was intended for a theater play. We learned that certain individuals tried to rebuild his original structure, having located his provisional plans. It was a machine based on anthroposophical principles, able to interact with people without electricity.

My interest, apart from the frequency and material part, is concerned with the sculptural, with the aesthetics of strange machines and how these almost obsolete objects are based on their own aesthetic. In a more sensory sense, I rely on the idea that when you see these “of-the-moment” machines, even if you are not aware of their original purpose, they induce an aura of being something with a function that isn’t entirely obvious. So, I have a series of sculptures that use acoustic shapes; they appear a little mysterious, because you recognize that they are not just mechanical objects—they had a function, and that intention is not immediately obvious.

RP: Does that involve belief systems? Is the object as machine activated by our faith in its efficacy? Does a common faith join the person operating the machine and the individual(s) receiving treatment? There are also examples of treatments forced on patients before and during World War I, when little-understood ailments were considered curable under the influence of machine medicines.
LG: I like to apply different artistic strategies to the same object. There is the idea that an object is not just what you see; it also has the potential to become something else. There is this strange shape that I keep referring to in the works, as well as the notion of a mysterious function. But there is also a kind of pseudo-scientific belief going on with the project, with specialists or therapists using some of the objects in a scientific setting. The idea was to create an exhibition of visible and invisible parts, in which variable frequencies are able to spread through the spaces in a way similar to sound. For example, the spiral works were inspired by the 20th-century scientist Georges Lakhovsky, who used machines as medicine in a very real context. I relied on a drawing, which shows the original machine and the excitement of people who were eager to try it. So, it is not entirely crazy, and it is not as if I am promoting something unusual. I am, for my part, interested in the history and situation as story, in a kind of anthropological way.

Exhibition view of “OttO,” Perrotin, Paris, 2018. Photo: Romain Darnaud, © Laurent Grasso/ADAGP, Paris, 2018, Courtesy the artist & Perrotin

RP: And in terms of aesthetics, when you see an object as machine, are you removing its scientific circumstances, in order to look at it more specifically as modern design?
LG: I think that, as with the subject of OttO, researching unusual situations and new territories challenges our vision of the world, because all of these things at a certain moment were new and innovative. The story of the solar storm is something new that also comes from the anthropic scene, in which we are involved as humans. I am really drawn to the idea of the mythology of space, as something you cannot absolutely control. It is another step further, because it is something completely out of our control. So yes, I am interested in this kind of shape, because it opens a door to another reality, to a non-field, and at the same time, it is a point of entry that, when you are walking through an Aboriginal landscape, touches on their belief systems. Which leads me to think of a very good text by the Australian art historian Darren Jorgensen (published in the booklet of the exhibition), who makes an interesting link between these machines and the Aboriginal people. Jorgensen is used to writing about Aboriginal cultures and science fiction, which for me becomes incredibly interesting.

RP: That’s an interesting connection.
LG: I adopted a series of machines, and we responded by making a number of works relating to their original designs. You have the “spiral” (OLOM), the “Steiner machine” (Strader Aparat), and other projects. For this particular piece, it was intended to mix spheres with glass, which refers back to the movie. So, there is a direct correlation between shape and visual experience. We intended to have mixed electrical devices based on Schumann’s research. The exhibition had spheres connected to his diagnosed frequency. Then there are the neon works, and what I like about this technique in neon, which is something I have adopted before, is that the glass tube is entirely transparent and on a large scale—creating a glass sculpture with gas inside. This connects with the smoke and spheres in the movie, and the appearance of a strange gas, which leads to a sense of these objects having or holding onto a function—a mix of the scientific and the strange. One of the rooms of the exhibition connected with a project for the Institut de France, where you have all the academics “under one roof,” close to the Beaux-Arts. The Institut was building a new room outside, and we were invited to contribute to a work for that space. We decided to create a series of new works, and we used a symbol that has been associated with the institution for centuries, the historical symbol of Minerva. And inside the gallery, you had the owl of Minerva. Contextually the owl is also connected with one of the sacred sites included in the exhibition, so there was a double connection.

Solar Wind, 2016. View of permanent installation, Paris. Photo: Studio Laurent Grasso, © Laurent Grasso/ADAGP, Paris, 2018, Courtesy the artist & Perrotin

RP: How do you determine the most appropriate method and medium for an idea?
LG: First of all, I don’t wish to have a signature style. I choose the material in relation to each project, each particular reference, and for each artwork I want to create. As a consequence, I don’t have recognizable work. I don’t like the idea of reproducing, branding, or marketing myself. The fact that my work is so different—that there is a kind of endless practice, whereby it changes all of the time—is, for me, a strong statement. Each project requires new historical and new scientific research, new technical research, and a new team.

RP: You must feel like you begin again with each new idea.
LG: Yes, from nothing. I have used onyx before, and when we were doing the project for the Institut, we were looking for a contrast between a very contemporary shape while sourcing an original idea from a historical reference—the owl of Minerva—including the use of historical materials like onyx and marble—materials that convey something of the feeling of the past. In terms of temporality, I like the idea of multiplicity, of different layers, of having different times within the same object.

RP: The notion of a multifaceted object that encapsulates more than one history is fascinating. Are you consciously having to learn new methods as part of an evolving practice?
LG: Of course, because the idea is not to be an expert in a certain technique or a certain type of work that you recognize as mine. I am not interested in doing “projects,” as I think a lot of artists are, who are preoccupied with promoting themselves. I see myself as entirely engaged in research—not because I am a critic, but because I would be bored doing the same thing my entire life, and I don’t see how it is possible for other artists to work that way. For me, what is interesting from art history is to challenge oneself. What you are able to recognize in my work, rather than the shape, the aesthetic, or the material, is the concept—the way I work and also the kind of methodology I employ, and the kind of research I continue to do.

Exhibition view of “OttO,” Perrotin, Paris, 2018. Photo: © Laurent Grasso/ADAGP, Paris, 2018, Courtesy the artist & Perrotin

There is a sculpture in the show that represents a child holding a monolith, which is shown like an apparition. What I would like to do next, and I am not sure if I can, is to make a sculpture in glass, which requires modeling and molding, and afterward I intend to cast it, which is something entirely new. We are challenging the people working with us to convince them to do it. I have another work based on stories from antiquity, about the use of electric fish to cure people, so again it is about what you see, and what you don’t.

Another strange device in the exhibition is a sculpture inspired by the aesthetics of radionics devices, which have a specific function and can be purchased by anyone; they mix amethyst with copper. You put something on one side that conveys or converts the power of the electric field of this thing over to another object. It is really strange, almost impossible to understand, but again I like the aesthetics of what I see, in terms of shape, and the abstract ideas behind the machine. In context, it appears as a kind of electrical structure—a mix of object, material, and relief, with a seductive and strange functionality.

RP: Do you, by way of your intervention and involvement, become more convinced by these historical machines?
LG: I appreciate what was happening at the time, when science set out to solve everything.