[Version française]

Text by Daniel kurjaković, in Glances in the reflecting surface of the rear‑view mirror, ed. Aparté, Les presses du réel, 2016.

Information, speculation and probability in Maxime Bondu’s work


Being in the world means being surrounded by an infinity of things. Numerous phenomena call, stimulate, excite or exhaust the individual. Our everyday perception is set in a whole series of changing physical scenes such as squares, offices, streets, dwellings, supermarkets, landscapes and different styles of architecture. Added to this is a flood of immaterial offers, impulses and stimulations in the form of information and data flow—cybernetic instances, digitisation mechanisms, and Internet activity. Thus information that crosses and colonises individual space in an incessant flow of data is now concentrated in our immediate existential universe.

A whole series of contemporary observers are trying to interpret the present maelstrom. For example, the art critic Jonathan Crary has shown in 24/7 : Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep (2013) the links between the colonisation of private space by strategies that seek to reduce non-productive time (sleep for example) and the present form of capitalism : the neoliberal economy. This evolution is not new as regards its main trends. From the start of the modern period, industrialisation and emphasis on technical aspects have resulted in fundamental change to both the quantity and nature of our experiences. In The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (1910), Rainer Maria Rilke thus shows the increasing subjective disintegration of his character under the effect of lack of privacy, crowding and increasing urban density. A few years before, in The Metropolis and Mental Life (1903), the sociologist Georg Simmel had described the difficulties caused by the taking in of the uninterrupted flow of stimuli to which cities expose us. 

It is certain that as regards quality the question is raised today in a different form. How can we process this enormous amount of information without falling into the blind acceptation of consumers devoid of critical sense or displaying excessive rejection dictated by cultural pessimism ? And what attitude can be taken when faced with the incessant flicker of information on screens of all kinds and that we know is often uncertain, imprecise or even tendentious or purely and simply invented and that their verity is subject to caution and lacks transparency at the least ?

Maxime Bondu’s work (*1985), which is experimental and evolving, is a good introduction to these questions even if at first sight his pieces do not have much to do with these questions. On the contrary, they address themes and situations in a very direct manner with craft and sculptural work and using narrative means that often seem perplexing, strange, slightly absurd or enigmatic. They are not all grand pompous speeches about the world but more in the ‘case study’ category. A subject list of his works would include, for example, an abandoned cinema, chromatic experiments, the conquest of space and ideologies of progress (The Color of the Cosmos, 2015), the World Chess Championship 1972, research on telekinesis and the Cold War (The Remote Viewer, 2015), artificial intelligence (The Deep War, 2015), a bird ring, a falcon suspected of having been used by Mossad and a Turkish village (24311 Tel-Avivunia Israel, 2015), genealogical research on a particular type of pencil and forms of neoliberalism and ultra-capitalism (I, Pencil), typographical characters that have disappeared, the austerity policy and the decline and decay of the world economy (Before the Dawn, 2015), a stone carver and sculpted stars, supposed to refer to the deaths of CIA agents (The Stars on the Wall, 2014), octopuses and prophecies (Architeuthis, a prophecy, 2014), an enormous map in book form that upsets the real proportions of an art institute (Macrotopographic Atlas, Palace of the Museums of Modern Art, West Wing, Level One, Recess of the Three Domes, 2013), electromagnetism and the nuclear apocalypse (History of a Pulse, 2013), electricity and entropy (The Bulb of Livermore, 2012–15) without forgetting androids, biotechnology and imaginary architecture (The Rosen Association, 2012–15), to give just a few examples.

Of course this list refers first of all to the range of Bondu’s interests and shows his curiosity. It is an inventory of the places and heterogeneous disciplines, of the historical periods and scientific fields that are the basis of what he makes. Although his work is not directly political, it is sensitive to ambivalent societal macroevolutions seen for example, in economic power relationships, wars and conflicts and in ideologies and social tensions. But all this is perhaps still only fairly superficial. What is more interesting is that his works do not move from the large to the small and that they have no pretensions of generalisation. On the contrary, they start from a precise detail that is insignificant in itself and could easily be unnoticed, and plot paradoxes at a societal level. It could be said that the artist works on showing space and time in a small rearview mirror—whatever the historical age of the underlying situation or the scope of the political, scientific or social contexts that it refers to. In this respect, his works are the reflective surface of a rear-view mirror whose slightly convex shape shows what is behind us with as wide an angle as possible.

How is this mirror constructed from the conceptual point of view ? In the case of the work 24311 Tel-Avivunia Israel, the trigger was a story published in several European newspapers in July 2013 : a small hawk with a suspicious ring tag was captured in Altinavya, a village in eastern Turkey. An inscription on the tag led the Turkish authorities to thinking that the bird was an agent of the Israeli espionage services (subsequent investigation showed that this was not true). It would not have been surprising as relations between Turkey and Israel had been difficult for a long time, especially because of the 2010 events concerning the Freedom Flotilla sailing to Gaza when, among others, eight Turkish pro-Palestine militants were killed by the Israeli army.

True to his method, Bondu does not focus directly on the complex geopolitical situation but shifts his view to a scene that is secondary— if not peripheral. The artist concentrates on the bird, hypostatises the possible aspects, backgrounds and contexts. He imagines for example what might have been the view of the flying pseudo-spy when it flew over the region : Bondu therefore made a model of the village as if one saw it from the sky. The scale cluster of a few houses on the actual floor of the exhibition space gives the visitor a vision similar to that from above (the model was designed using data from Google Earth). Like the village, the image of the resting bird looking at the village, another piece displayed, does not seek to confirm the military report but is intended to be just an evocation (in the form of a collage). The same applies to the colour photograph of a replica of the original ring on the bird and also to the 7,067 engraved bird ring numbers; they are just handcrafted imitations for filling out the network of references.

As in much other work by Bondu, the issue is not only the traditional contrasting of fact and fiction but also the area that lies between them. Here, the artist is bound to the critical para-narrative turning point in art in the early 2000s (with artists like The Atlas Group and Simon Starling and, to a certain degree, Thomas Demand). It is true that all distinction between fact and fiction has not disappeared completely. However, the tools for differentiating between them must be modified, developed and refined and—good note should be taken of this— with the current spectacularisation of society that gives images fetish status and where visual technology performs virtual production of all imaginable ‘realities’ and in which media communication is deeply infiltrated by political and commercial publicity. In Bondu’s work, the art of clues, models, approximations, hypostases and replications that guide perception towards the back of the media image (and sometimes to the frontier of the unusual and anecdotal) seems to be devoted to this ‘hypocritical’ work—to paraphrase Baudelaire. By neither confirming nor ruling out any hypothesis, 24311 Tel-Avivunia Israel activates the capacity for reflection and perception that Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) called ‘free-floating awareness’ and Theodor Reik (1888–1969) ‘listening with the third ear’ (that we allow ourselves here to change to ‘vision with the third eye’, giving it a more esoteric connotation than desired). Bondu’s works thus open a space that cannot be circumscribed rapidly by either reasoned hypotheses or theoretical knowledge.

In fact, a whole arsenal of figures that are subtle, if not extrasensorial, is found in Bondu’s work, focusing on the question of the representation of perception. Far from being stable and self-evident, the notion of perception depends on historical periods, geographic contexts and social situations and so its conception varies. Western scientism certainly favours positive types of thinking (this is at least a widespread opinion) that can be approached to certain forms of rationality and logic. However, we know that even ‘hard’ sciences are subject to ‘other’ forms of perception, as can be seen in their history. As an example, remember the dream of a spiral staircase—a phenomenon anything but scientific—that is said to have helped the American molecular biologist James Watson to perceive the double helix form of DNA in 1953 with Francis Crick.

The stories that underlie the various works by Bondu may be perfectly comprehensible but their various components can nevertheless seem totally irrational. Bondu’s work multiplies incursions into extrasensorial perception, using ancient topoi such as oracles, prophecies or oneiromancy, pre-modern phenomena like shamanism, voodoo, spiritualism, together with parapsychology, hallucinations and telepathy that in the 20th century existed more or less on the fringe of official science and research and that have provided material for literature, the cinema and popular culture until today.

The Remote Viewer, an installation in several parts, is a good example. Anchored in the legendary game between the Russian Boris Spassky and the American Bobby Fischer at the World Chess Championship in 1972—an event strongly symbolic of the Cold War and that finished with Fischer’s victory—Bondu’s attention is drawn to a secondary scene, an experiment on parapsychological perception. This ESP (extrasensory perception) experiment in September 1980 involved Fischer’s niece, Elisabeth Targ (1961–2002), herself a reputed psychiatrist with an interest in psychic phenomena and who was convinced of their importance in curative methods and spirituality. Janice Boughton, who ran the experiment, showed four objects to Elisabeth Targ. They represented the four possible results of the coming American presidential elections in November 1980 : Jimmy Carter wins ; Ronald Reagan wins ; John Anderson wins ; none of the three wins. The objects were concealed in a wooden box not seen by Targ and only to be opened towards midnight, before the announcement of the winner. Elisabeth Targ was to use mental force alone to predict the election result. In her description, she finally identified a ‘white, hollow, conical object with a string attached to its apex’. This was clearly the object intended to represent a victory by Reagan. Bondu used both verbal and visual clues to make the corresponding objects. This and the other parts of the installation— hand-made replicas of the two chairs on which Spassky and Fischer were seated during the game, the ‘Prediction’ text board based on Elisabeth Targ’s description of the hidden object and a humorous drawing of chess players with the four coloured squares characteristics of exercises in extrasensory perception form a set of heterogeneous objects. The artist achieved a double goal with this arrangement : where from the iconographic point of view only irreconcilable objects are present, he makes a continuous field theme emerge ; secondly, he decodes this field using practically only neglected details—second or third order attributes and supposedly secondary scenes of a more important story.

In most cases, convincing results are based on detailed observation and not on generalisation. However, Bondu does not seek to award them documentary value for the embellishment of narrative contexts and the events mentioned to give them an impression of authenticity. In the last resort, the constructed nature of the work is always visible. The detailed observations, including the resulting works, are thus speculation, hypotheses and inventions. In the case of the installation Remote Viewer, these are based once again on topoi that form part more or less of the collective memory, like the Cold War, parapsychology, experiments conducted by the NASA, artificial intelligence and the World Chess Championship of 1972. Indeed, even if they are to generate even the vaguest schematic or stereotyped associations in the observer, they nonetheless display a certain degree of probability. This detail does have importance as the ‘speculations’ are not purely theoretical and virtual but effectively have a physical form for which the artist has acquired a whole set of artisanal know-how over the years, some of which is very advanced : making a bulb (for The Bulb of Livermore, 2012), the blueprint, a now rare technique also referred to as the ferroprussiate process (for Rosen Association, 2012), digital restoration techniques (for Guam, 2012) and advanced skills in joinery (in the case of the chairs for Remote Viewer, 2015), to give just a few examples.

This brings us back to our initial question, that of how to manage the mass and diversity of information. Is our mind as conceived by the 17th century empiricists, for example, a tabula rasa ceaselessly engraved with fresh information that constantly changes the person ? Or, as held by Platonists and rationalists, does it bear the print of innate ideas that guide the individual, regardless of interior and exterior influences ? Perhaps the reply lies in neither of these points of view, at least as regards Bondu. The features of his work and the mixture of procedures and idiosyncratic, artisanal, experimental and speculative interests go more towards the constant sensorial exploration of the possibilities of reading the world and recreating it at different levels and in different contexts. His work is a portrait of virtualisation and of the information tangle of the present, not as spectres but as new occasions to go deeply into fields that seem to us to be known, exhausted, over-used and devoid of any substance and about which there seemed to be nothing more to say. And then the political dimension of Bondu’s work lies in his way of avoiding true/false polarity and of conceiving possible alternative contexts through geographies and periods. Each new exploration, that is to say each new decision to start from a particular point in the tangle, sets things in movement.

Perhaps, this is why one of what must be the artist’s most concise works is focused on the dice, combining contingency and necessity. This arrangement with a valuable appearance consists of a set of different types of slightly stylised dice dating from different periods and from different places, shown in the form of wooden polyhedra placed on the removable leaves of a piece of occasional furniture. It is not by chance that the work is entitled The Possibles.