In a way, the Livermore bulb is a living monument to the dawn of scientific progress in the field of artificial light. Installed in 1901 in a firemen’s barracks at Livermore, in central California, it has continuously emitted light for 111 years. Because of this longevity, it has gradually become a symbol, or rather a counter-example, of in-built obsolescence. Today it is the avatar of a debate between the detractors of the Phoebus cartel, set up in 1924 by industrialists (General Electric, Philips, Osram…) who were trying to standardize the price and shelf-life of incandescent bulbs, and scientists tending to show that this longevity would be at the price of greatly reduced luminosity and, in the end, with an expenditure of energy decidedly higher than the costs of bulb replacement.1
Maxime Bondu’s (b. in 1985 in France) L’ampoule de Livermore [The Livermore Bulb], 2012, is a work which extends the issues raised by this object today, which is at once outmoded and progressive. Whatever the real scientific and economic advantages of the original light bulb, it is certain that it has the merit of relaunching lines of thinking about ways of producing objects.
Through its longevity, it seems like a metaphor of what we might call a “planned decline (in growth)”: by reducing its energetic metabolism, the Californian bulb admits decomposition and entropy, but in such a way that it is capable of adapting and surviving for absolutely incredible periods of time (some theoretical projections predict that at this pace, it might stay alight for 80 million years, in the end emitting no more than a low quantity of infrared rays). If the bulb were to be personified, it would represent a contemporary anti-Icarus, sacrificing performance and over-consumption of energy to a reduced lifestyle, with much holding back, so as to last longer.
Maxime Bondu’s work consists in a painstaking artisanal reproduction of the original. It also aims to retain its technical properties and appraise their effects by transposing them to the arena of the contemporary art exhibition. The bulb must thus be presented in a permanent way, transgressing the usual boundaries between temporary exhibition and permanent collection. It throws down a certain number of challenges to the institution accommodating it, which is responsible for keeping it alive as best it can (by feeding it continuously through the emergency circuit, e.g.), but also for showing it after its “death”, a moment when the work becomes its own monument. The institution must thus assume a permanent stance in its adoption of the bulb and turn its back on any possibility of lending it.
These features call to mind another work closely linked to the principle of entropy: Gianni Motti’s Big Crunch Clock,2 a digital clock showing time before the thermal death of the sun (five billion years) and the consequent disappearance of living conditions in the solar system as we know them. The difference is nevertheless fundamental: because the Big Crunch Clock is a time-switch, it represents resignation and finiteness, whereas The Livermore Bulb is a chronometer thus conjuring up challenge and hope.
Next, it is important to deal with the methods of reconstruction at work in The Livermore Bulb. One or two specimens identical to the one on view in the firemen’s barracks are still for sale, but Maxime Bondu has gone for a different approach, that of the “re-inventor”. To situate his approach, we must perhaps think of how production tools were at the end of the 19th century. At that time, the burgeoning lighting industry called for its own tools which still remained to be invented. In the 1880s, the Edison factory, for example, was just a heap of bare electric wires, stapled to wooden struts. The 1896 factory housing the Shelby Electric Company (producer of the Livermore Bulb) had been one of the first coordinated efforts aimed at finally producing efficient and appropriate tools.
Similarly, Maxime Bondu elected to start out from zero and retrace the manufacturing process based on sources which are very bitty today. The patent of the inventor of this bulb, the Frenchman Adolphe Chaillet, is deceptive and omits crucial factors such as the composition of the filament. In fact, secrecy was chosen as the best protection of this invention; a strange choice to go for opaqueness in order to better defend light. But this nevertheless echoes our own digital society, torn between protection and sharing: protection of royalties, Open Source, majors, pirating, corporatism…
By recreating this lamp today in an artisanal manner, with the means of an ill-adapted age and by way of the trial and error process, Maxime Bondu reverts to empirical construction, and thus to an historically very important method of scientific exploration. As a copy, The Livermore Bulb has a similar status to Don Quixote as written by Pierre Ménard, a fictional author concocted by Jorge Luis Borges.3 The undertaking to re-write a book in an identical way, a few centuries later and in its now outmoded original language, has the effect of producing a book to which the contemporary context lends a quite different meaning and interpretation. The same goes for this modest but tenacious source of light.
Emile Ouroumov, January 2012
1-Technically speaking, the carbon filament increases its resistance over time, casing a longer shelf-life as well as a reduction in electricity consumption, nevertheless at the price of an even more significant drop in luminosity.
2-On view since 1999 at the Mamco in Geneva and at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris.
3-Jorge Luis Borges, Pierre Menard, auteur du Quichotte, in Fictions, 1974 (Gallimard (first publication of the original text in Spanish: 1939). (English: Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote, in Ficciones, 1956, 1962, Translated by Anthony Bonner, 1939).