I recently received an announcement: the Livermore light bulb is born. We shall celebrate a re-creation, rather than a birth. Its author, Maxime Bondu has done his utmost to manufacture anew an object that is more than a century old, a light bulb that was lit in 1901 and still burns,1 albeit less and less brightly, but without its brilliance waning, or if it does wane, it won’t be for thousands of years. The manufacture of this extraordinary object preceded the regulations about the shelf-life of light bulbs, which were drawn up in 1924 by a clutch of industrialists concerned about guaranteeing the longevity of their markets.2
Bondu’s reproduction is not only informed by his fascination for an object whose shelf life is several hundred times longer than a human life—a promise of eternity for its creator. It is also, and above all, significant in its economic implications. The counterpart to the outstandingly long life of the Livermore bulb is a progressive reduction or lowering of the incandescence of the filament, and, as a result, an exponential energy consumption. In a word, it incarnates an absurd object, an inanity running counter to the imperative of commercial production. The process of re-manufacture itself incarnates this counter-movement. Bondu called upon a large number of different trades. Re-creating nothing less than an assembly line in order to produce a unique object, half-way between an artisanal product and a standardized object. But who better than artists can enjoy the leisure of producing something irrational and unproductive, or at least something deemed so to be, based on the logic and the economic imperatives of mass production.
As banal as it seemingly is, the light bulb thus invites us to raise questions about the history underlying its construction, and puts the spectator in the position of an archaeologist who draws the clues to a way of living, acting and thinking from observing the everyday objects of ancient societies. Bondu himself readily adopts this researcher’s stance. His work is fuelled by investigations, and compilations of sources and methods which he borrows from that field. The Livermore Light Bulb (2012) is not alien to the principle of experimental archaeology, for example, which consists in attempting to reproduce, in the conditions of the period, an object or a construction, in order to pierce the mysteries and the technical, economic and even social and political implications of their manufacture. More broadly, this is the particular feature of the empiricism of the scientific method.
In the Rosen Association (2012), produced with the architect Brent Martin, the artist once again resorts to re-use. He uses an old reprographic technique, the cyanotype, which consists in exposing to light a sheet of paper covered with a photo-sensitive substance and also covered with the replica of the image to be reproduced. The print obtained is of a typical blue colour which hallmarks a period, the one prior to the development of digitization and computer technology.3 The artist has thus re-appropriated this technique, which had fallen into disuse, to reproduce the construction plan drawn up by Brent Martin, for the headquarters of the Rosen Association in Los Angeles. An evocative name for science-fiction lovers, because this fictitious organization, which makes androids to be used by human beings, appears in Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, better known by the name of its film adaptation, Blade Runner.4
Bondu here goes beyond the sources offered by the novel to imagine the establishment of this enterprise today. The American author gives no physical description of the Rosen Association building, nor any historical indication about its foundation and development. It is the artist who deduces them, speculatively, by means of a subtle observation of the present-day industrial context and the geographical reality of the city of Los Angeles. From this he derives a fictitious but probable story about the creation and growth of the Rosen organization since the 1990s, a medium designed to sharpen the architect’s conception of the plan. Philip K. Dick’s fiction is thus rooted in reality. Bondu regards the prescient novel as a valid source for an historical reconstruction, the essential thing being that it makes sense in relation to what there was beforehand. He is readily uncertain about what reality is and what fiction is, borrowing for his own purposes the many meanings of the term (hi)story, which refers as much to a fictional narrative as to the supposed objective sequence of past events. The Rosen plan might be a Philip K. Dick archive or a real project to establish society. In any event, Maxime Bondu’s cyanotype fills a void left by the novel.
In Guam (2012), the artist fills other voids, the physical ones created by time’s wear and tear on the surface of a series of slides. These images, which he digitally restores, come from a set of photographs, dated in the 1970s, of the island of Guam in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. This procedure restores a unity to the images showing a wild and beautiful nature, while at the same time asserting the artificial character of this heavenly vision of the island which was in fact the theatre of colonial conflicts, before becoming a US military base in the 1950s. This gesture of authoritarian restoration calls to mind the premisses of archaeology and a figure such as that of Arthur John Evans. The English archaeologist, who was in charge of the excavations of the ancient city of Knossos in Crete at the beginning of the 20th century, recreated in concrete certain parts of the palace whose ruins he had revealed, going so far as to imagine the paintings that decorated it. His scientific approach never veered away from the fantastic image he had fashioned for himself, which he then imposed on later generations.5
This falsification of sources, which imposes a biased vision of history, is one of the issues lying at the heart of Maxime Bondu’s work. In the video Rover (2012), he equips a remotely controlled vehicle with a small camera and makes it move around the basalt “Craters of the Moon” site in Idaho, which, looking as it does like a moonscape, was used as a training ground for the astronauts involved in the Apollo missions, at the beginning of the 1970s. The filmed sequence, strangely resembling those brought back from space, sows doubt about the reality of space conquests, where the sole tangible proof involves the mediation of the image. In 2008, on the wall of the exhibition venue, the artist engraved a war scene, The Battle of Qal’atjaffard. Resembling a copy of an ancient bas-relief, hard to tell apart from the original, the scene actually comes from a contemporary virtual reconstruction, taken from Battlefield 2. This type of video game—often very well documented but without claiming any scientific precision—fuels the collective imagination about a given historical period. Maxime Bondu has clearly understood the power of sources over historical knowledge and the power of imagination over reality. His forays into different time-frames, real and fictitious alike, reminds us that the course of history has nothing fixed about it, and that it is endlessly transformed by the yardstick of the new interpretations made of it. The objectivity and impartiality desired by the researcher are impossible, and, in the historical narrative, hypotheses are forced to co-exist with certified facts. So we realize that the artist really likes prescient literature, which, in the end of the day, does not proceed any differently: it involves speculation, in the future, based on confirmed data in the present. Made of reconstructions and simulacra, his work is henceforth an invitation to grasp this element of relentless uncertainty, which is part and parcel of our reality.
Hanna Alkema, September 2012
1.This is a pilot light installed in a firemen’s barracks in the city of Livermore in central Califormia.
2.This in-built obsolescence limits the shelf life of a bulb to a thousand hours.
3.The cyanotype was used up until the 1990s in particular by architects, to reproduce plans, which still drawn up by hand at that time.
4.The novel written in1966 was adapted for film by Ridley Scott in 1982.
5.The site suffered a lot from the re-creations commissioned by Arthur John Evans which prevent archaeologists from having access to the lower strata.