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Interview with SMITH

Photographer, filmmaker, sculptor and Étant donnés grantee SMITH speaks about his most recent project “Désidération”, a long-term exploration of our relationship with the cosmos across various artistic disciplines.

What was the initial project of the residency ?

I applied to the Étant Donnés residency program with the desire to pursue a process of research and creation around a project entitled “Desideration”, first started in 2017 with astrophysicist Jean-Philippe Uzan.

We chose to recycle the word “desideration”, which has fallen out of use and etymologically is derived from the word “desire”, to signify the painful absence of a celestial dimension. According to today’s most probable scientific hypothesis, the elements necessary for the genesis of human life on earth were brought to our planted by meteorites, similar to the meteorite of Orgueil, which fell on the eponymous town in southwestern France in 1864. What link still unites us with our celestial origin today? Can we seize, once again, the extraterrestrial dimension of our genealogy? How can one describe the melancholy tied to the distance that separates us from our native cosmos?

By exploring the crossroads between artistic investigation, scientific research and philosophical thought, I wanted to compose new plastic, photographic and performative forms, but also theoretical ones to explore our contemporary relationship with the cosmos. It thus seemed like an obvious choice to take the first steps towards this initiative at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where, with Professor Donna Haraway, new narrative strategies have been formed at the intersections of philosophy, science, poetry and science-fiction. I shared the first elements of this project with Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephens, artists and “sexecology” theoreticians from the laboratory E.A.R.T.H. Lab at UCSC, who had offered me to host the project’s first Californian research steps. I also met Anna Milone - exhibition commissioner and program director for the FLAX (France Los Angeles Exchange) foundation - thanks to the FAWU Abroad program, where I was a finalist, and so we decided to pursue this research sojourn together.

To be received at a residency is an incredible privilege for an artist. It’s a way to take some distance from a project, which can sometimes become an obsession, to expose its basic elements to other looks, cultures and points of view; to let it unfold and simultaneously dedicate oneself to it entirely, apart from the world and beyond time, where one feels detached from any source of worry. Like so often, serendipity has played a major role in the course of this stay and lead me on unexpected crossroads.

How was Étant Donnés an important step in your work?

I had the chance to be welcomed, listened to and guided by the very active, attentive and inventive cultural team of the French consulate in San Francisco (especially Juliette Donadieu and Emilie Passerieux), by their counterpart in Los Angeles, Anne-Sophie Simenel and Douglas Hull from the Alliance Francaise and Silicon Valley: They all worked hard to put me in contact with fascinating people who, directly or indirectly, have contributed to the project’s intellectual and artistic development. I have been invited by the Mutek festival to present “Desideration” at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco and by Professor Edward Shanken from the University of California, Santa Cruz in the context of the Digital Arts/New Media (DANM) program, which he is in charge of. Thanks to the French Consul in San Francisco, I have also had a precious encounter with of astronomer and planetologist Franck Marchis from the SETI institue (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence), with whom I have been in conversation ever since. Finally, my stay was illuminated by a beautiful exhibition organized by the commissioner and artist Kalie Granier, who presented my work at the heart of her festival “Pulsions” at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, and at the 836M gallery in San Francisco. 

What were you able to make within the context of the residency?

My primary craft is photography, and it is quite compulsive. I abundantly photographed each of the experiences lived, encounters, meditations, dreams, journeys, which marked the rhythm of my stay, like an internal archive of this investigation around desideration. I also made most out of the change of perspective brought about by the distance while keeping a rich epistolary correspondence with my alter-egos, my allies in this shared project: the writer Lucien Raphmaj and Jean-Philippe Uzan, whom I’ve mentioned previously. In this way we pursued the intellectual elaboration of our project, a crucial step, since it implied the creation of a glossary peculiar to the phenomena of desideration, which we have named fragmentary and where one comes upon entries such as “endocosmology”, “indisciplinarity”, “a-cosmie”, “astroblem”, or “cosmic hybridation”. This glossary constitutes for us a custom-tailored toolbox of thought, which we use in different fields of reflection and creation. We created the “Cosmiel cell” – a polycephalic entity, multidimensional and open, tasked to define desideration, but also to organize our collective transition, which will pass through the resolution of our desiderated condition through the search of what we call “the state of Cosmiel”, in reference to the character invented by Athansius Kircher, a 16th century German Jesuit, in his work “the ecstatic cosmic journey”.

Cosmiel is an angel, inviting his disciple Jean on an ethereal stroll at the heart of the solar system: we consider him the first desiderated. So, the state of Cosmiel – in a certain way, analogous to the idea of illumination – would be the culmination of a reconciliatory process towards a cosmic fulfillment capable of making place for a positive melancholy, a peaceful memory of the state of absence and solitude felt by the desiderated.

Can you present to us your new creations or the current progress of your research? What future prospects and desires to you have at the end of this residency?

The first results of those three months of research could be seen at the exhibition “Life Lines” at the Mac Val museum in Vitry, where the first desiderated work, as well as a performance were presented last August, followed by a lecture held at the Banquet du Livre (book feast) at Lagrasse, centered around basic concepts of desideration.

From September 18th to November 3rd the exhibition “Paroxysm of sublime”, commissioned by Anna Milone and centered around the concept of solastalgia, is held at the LACE art center (Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibition), where a photographic installation of our project is presented.

This last is designed as an open and collective undertaking, representing the reconnection between the terrestrial species and their native cosmos. We hope to capture our audience’s imagination and contribute to the establishment of new representations of the world, focused on the recovery of a link to our environment, whose limits are not in this world but beyond: in the celestial spheres. In this light, the Filles du Calvaire gallery in Paris is offering a first solo show to “Desideration”, from October 26th to November 23rd 2019. Conceived as a “hub”, where photography, installation, performance, music and cinema converge, this exhibition will be staged by the architects and designers of the DIPLOMATES studio, while American composer Akira Rabelais will be in charge of sound and music. It will be structured by nocturnal meetings during which the invitees, coming from different disciplinary backgrounds, will share their experiences of desideration.

Imagined as a desiderated symposium, the exhibition will lay the first foundations of this long-term project which we hope will further unfold in the years to come. Science, like philosophy, is not as much a discipline, as a way to describe the world, to tell stories. Within the Cosmiel cell, we allow ourselves certain shifts from one narrative or discourse to another. We suggest adopting an disruptive attitude, which aims to embrace the world and knowledge without disciplinary barriers, where each point of view overlaps, entwines, falls together to open up new dimensions. 


SMITH X Cellule Cosmiel X DIPLOMATES x Akira Rabelais

With the participation of Patrick Boucheron, Andy Bradin, Jean-Philippe Cazier Barbara Carlotti, Jean-François Clervoy, Sorour Darabi, Domotic & Zoé Wolf, Claude-Emmanuelle Gajan-Maull, Victoria Lukas, Guillaume Marie, Jérôme Marin (Monsieur K), Stéphanie Michelini, Anne Pauly, Paul B. Preciado, Florence Thomassin, Antonin-Tri Hoang, Yelli-Yelli.

Vernissage on Saturday, October 26th, 2019, from 3:00pm to 10:00pm

From 26 Oct 2019 to 23 Nov 2019


Galerie Les Filles du Calvaire
17 Rue des Filles du Calvaire
75003, Paris