Les Immatériaux
Les Immatériaux
Les Immatériaux
Les Immatériaux
Les Immatériaux
Les Immatériaux
Les Immatériaux

Les Immatériaux

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A landmark in twentieth-century exhibitions was Les Immatériaux, co-curated in 1985 for the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris by the philosopher Jean-François Lyotard and the design historian and theorist Thierry Chaput. The Les Immatériaux pluridisciplinary exhibition mingled abstract art, French theory, design, new technologies, electronics, and elaborate scenography in an ambitious show dubbed a “presentation of ideas.” Its angle of attack rested primarily on technoscience. 

The fifth floor of the Pompidou was unlike it had ever been seen before. The attic-chapel where high masses for the dead are usually celebrated had become the world of darkness and silence (the sound track is housed in the headphone which you are given at the entrance) and the mysterious kingdom of microwaves and ultraviolet, laser beams and integrated circuits, screens and diagrams. 

Among its many novel features was the fact that it was the first exhibition in which a philosopher played a leading role, opening the door to many other instances where intellectuals would become ad hoc curators. Instead of the standard sequence of white cubes, Lyotard and Chaput divided the entire fifth floor of the museum with large sheets of uncolored metal mesh hanging from the ceiling. The work was presented on gray walls—“the color of postmodernity" according to the philosopher. Contrary to the neutral lighting of most exhibition environments, Les Immatériaux offered a theatrical setting—the work of young stage designer Françoise Michel—which played with stark contrasts between spotlit exhibits and areas of near total darkness. Chaput’s words: ‘Decked in demanding grey, illuminated by improbable lighting, with unpredictable ideas allowed to hover, this hour, this day in this year, suspended, rigorously ordered yet without system, “The Immaterials” exhibit themselves between seeing, feeling and hearing.’ 

Lyotard designed the exhibition’s overarching linguistic structure. Lyotard suggested the conflation between five French words deriving from the Indo-European root ‘mât’ (to make by hand, to measure, to build) and the communication model first developed by Harold Lasswell—‘Who / Says What / In Which Channel / To Whom / With What Effects?’—later translated into a communication diagram by Claude Shannon and Norbert Wiener, which Roman Jakobson would apply to, and amend in light of, linguistics. Lyotard’s conflation of these communication models with the etymological group of ‘mat’ terms was an epistemological short-circuit between heterogeneous discourses, the one poetic, the other scientific, to establish the following equivalences: matériau = support (medium), matériel =destinataire (to whom the message is addressed), maternité = destinateur (the message’s emitter), matière = référent (the referent), and matrice = code (the code). 


The exhibition was made up of installations related to these five terms. The installations, “zones,” were separated by “deserts” to not suggest any correct path or guide the visitor experience. The labyrinth-laboratory of thirty “zones” evoked the vaporous darkness of Plato’s cave in the post-modern version.

In the exhibition each visitor was equipped with a helmet, with infrared reception which at specific points in the exhibition received the sound emission, the visitor walking from one transmitter to another in an archipelago exhibition listened to the words of the philosopher.

The exhibition soundtrack included the voices of Maurice Blanchot, Samuel Beckett and Antonin Artaud, as well as a series of concerts at IRCAM including the French premiere of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Kathinkas Gesang. Press release came with a cassette of texts, and music excerpts, read by French actor Michael Lonsdale.

Moving through the exhibition and wearing Phillips headphones, the audience members would hear:

Why 'Immateriaux'? Research and development in the techno-sciences, art and technology, yes even in politics, give the impression that reality, whatever it may be, becomes increasingly intangible, that it can never be controlled directly—they give the impression of a complexity of things...The devices themselves are also becoming more complex. One step was set as their artificial brains started to work with digital data; with data that have no analogy to their origin. It is as if a filter has been placed between us and the things, a screen of numbers...A color, a sound, a substance, a pain, or a star return to us as digits in schemes of utmost precision. With the encoding and decoding-systems we learn that there are realities that are in a new way intangible. The good old matter itself comes to us in the end as something which has been dissolved and reconstructed into complex formulas. Reality consists of elements, organized by structural rules (matrixes) in no longer human measures of space and time.

For some years now the international debate has been open on the question of postmodern. Is the modem project to emancipate mankind from ignorance, awe and poverty by developing and spreading knowledge, the arts and freedoms still a realistic one today, at the end of the 20th century? The answer is doubtful... It is clear however that man's power, from his body to the galaxies, does not cease to grow. But to what purpose? Modem design is perpetuated, but in a state of uneasiness. Uncertainty generates, by reaction, a desire for security, stability and identity. This desire assumes a thousand forms: it even hides under the name postmodern! The exhibition through a journey into an impalpable, dematerialized reality that sweeps from suprematism to minimal art, from serial music to holograms, right up to currency and electronic effects, seeks to make the public aware of this contemporary doubt. 

“Les Immateriaux” does not mean the destruction of objects but the loss of reality of materials and matter. To begin with, realities for us are messages, at times easy to interpret, at times indecipherable. The sun no longer rises on the earth, the earth is just any body in a galaxy lost in the ocean of galaxies: and on earth man is an eminently improbable organization of cosmic matter. 

Professional or domestic work increasingly demands contents. Manual, visual and olfactive contact with material is disappearing. The aptitudes of the body are less important than those of intelligence.

The contents themselves never cease to grow more complex. A step was taken when brains started operating with computerized data, without analogies with their source. As if a filter, as a screen of figures, had dropped between things and us. A colour, a sound, an object, a pain, a star, are given back to us as numeric cards and identification becomes very subtle. Eventually the object itself reaches us analysed and reconstructed in complex formulas.

Reality is made up of indistinguishable elements organized by laws of structure on non-human scales of space and time.

So how can we ignore the problem of the source of these innumerable messages and their destination? To what purpose do we always attempt to receive them, to decipher them and to produce new ones if we do not think that in this way we are honouring those who generate them? And what about the matter of sense?

“Les Immatériaux” is a kind of dramaturgy placed between the completion of a period and the anxiety for an emerging era at the dawn of postmodernity, and in this sense, is part of a philosophical and artistic project. It seeks to awaken a sensitivity which is already there, to feel the uncanny in the familiar, and how difficult it is to get an idea of ​​what is changing. 

A whirlwind of stopped paths where you will draw your own. Sites of bio-genetics and visual arts, architecture and astrophysics, of music and food, of physics and clothing, a maze of linguistical machines, of habitats and photography, industry and law. Miles of invisible wiring. And our questions: reality, material, equipment, matrix of meaning, and who is the author? 

This exhibition is a school of sensibility and an alarm signal. We emerge from it a little more conscious of ourselves and of the imminent mutation of our kind. The “soft” approach to the world is not confined to the stammering caricatures of new design; it is a matter of the heart and of the head, as Yves Klein prophetically said. That is the revelation: once this basic idea is perceived, everything else appears relative, beginning with relativity itself. One forgets the kitsch effects of the mosquito-nets, the arbitrary choice of reference-documents (especially on the subject of art), and the confusion of certain rooms. Never mind if the technology is not always up to the situation and if these super-intelligent little machines turn out to be unduly fragile. What does matter is the ecstasy, the bottle is of little importance after that. Let us be leavened with Lyotard. That is the best way of exorcising the present ghosts of our immediate future. 

The visitor will not quickly forget the sound of blood in the entrance hall, Artaud’s cry to the equivalent derm, or the voice of Yves Klein talking about the architecture of air. And when sorting out his memories he will be unable to prevent himself thinking of a limitless future. He will have felt a bit stronger and seen a little farther ahead. The whole monochrome adventure will have unfolded in a flash in his brain and before his eyes.

The visitor to the “Immateriaux” will thus gather, in disorder, an incalculable quantity of vivid psycho-sensorial impressions on the borderline between reality and fiction, realization and illusion. Some will be infinitely agreeable, other less.

This equation between the immateriality of color or human voice and the essential, ineffable element of what constitutes an artwork seems to lend credence to Lyotard’s and Chaput’s claim that Les Immatériaux “merely presents to the eyes and ears some of the effects of a new sensibility, as would a work of art.” But to grant Les Immatériaux art-like status, a number of operations of working-through, or anamnesis, must first be performed: of the modern in the postmodern; of the pictorial or fictional field in the exhibition space (as Diderot did in his report on the 1767 Salon); and of colour (or voice) in the pictorial/fictional field (as manifested in Les Immatériaux, in particular, through Duchamp, Monory and Buren). These permutations are what destabilise any authorship the anthropocentric ‘I’ may have over a ‘work’–be it of art–and transform the singular subject into a participant in a collective heterologia.

We may debate whether Les Immatériaux successfully dramatised these reversals, whether, that is, Lyotard and Chaput managed, as Lyotard put it, to ‘convert anxiety into joyfulness’ and ‘displace the tragic nature of writing into humour’. Yet what is undeniable is that, true to Freud’s definition of anamnesis as a first step in the analytic treatment, the working through of Les Immatériaux has only just begun – not in search of any definitive origin or answer, but as a potentially endless chain of phrases in which Lyotard’s commitment to an ‘initial forgetting’ at the Centre Pompidou in 1985 still pressures us to take part.