By Caroline Ha Thuc /
A pioneer of new media art, French artist and theorist Maurice Benayoun began experimenting with 3D animations in 1987 and interactive VR installations in the early 1990s. Since then, he has developed a complex multimedia practice that combines digital technologies with a conceptual approach. Benayoun, also known as MoBen (莫奔), arrived in Hong Kong nine years ago to teach at City University of Hong Kong’s School of Creative Media. There he established the Neuro Design Lab, a studio where he and his team develop and produce his art projects.
CHT: Since 2018, you have been working on a very ambitious project, Value of Values, which aims to evaluate the relative value of human values such as freedom, love and power. What triggered this idea? MB: This project arose from a series of questions. We have seen recently how much various governments based their pandemic-related decisions on values: protect the elderly or the economy? Compassion or money? But what does that mean today for individuals? With the Mechanics of Emotions series, I created large urban screen artworks where viewers could watch in real time the World Emotion Forecast, based on internet search data. With Value of Values, together with Nicolas Mendoza and Tobias Klein, we propose a stock market where human values could be exchanged and monetised, but also an apparatus that allows these values to take tangible artforms.
The project has been conceived on at least three levels. The first part happened in different shows and was interactive: you invited people to give shape to these values, in what you call the Brain Factory. I worked with researchers to develop algorithms helping to translate people’s thoughts into a tangible form. Viewers are asked to concentrate on one particular value, and electroencephalogram sensors are placed around their head. We can then listen to their brainwaves, giving them the possibility to assess the evolution of a dynamic 3D shape according to their conception of the value. It is a collective endeavour because the shape from which you start has been continuously redesigned by all the predecessors working on the same value. During the eight-minute process, each viewer produces 10 items or VoVs, all named and numbered according to their value and series: for example, FREEDOM 0160, FREEDOM 0161 etc. Better than a tangible item, these models are registered on the blockchain, a specific type of database in which information is stored in a decentralised way. Participants, brain workers, are given the first token that includes a visualisation and the 3D model, which is a geometric abstraction in digital form of the freshly designed value. They will be able, later, to exchange or trade this token on the market of values.
This is the second stage of the work, when it becomes digitised. In your online platform, people can trade their tokens, which means that values become monetised and commodified. This seems rather cynical? I like this ambiguity. Of course, saying that values can become objects of transaction is debatable, yet this platform is open. So far, SEX is ranked at the top position, and surprisingly MONEY is not [usually] the most demanded value, depending on the location. This is exactly the challenge and the interest of the work. Viewers can follow the fluctuations of the market, the real-time ranking of the values according to different places in the world. Is LOVE more valorised in South Korea than in Taiwan? Again, I am only asking questions and watching how things evolve. People might manipulate the market and speculate on some values, for instance for political reasons, but in the end there might be a balance between speculative and emotional motivations.
In order to obtain a real collective hierarchy of values, you would need a large population of people involved. Is this possible? I hope so. We keep developing the project in order to reach different sets of audiences. Many exhibitions planned around the world have been postponed or cancelled. In early 2022, VoV should have a solo exhibition in a large space in Hong Kong as an Osage Gallery initiative. There will be a trading room for the visitors to engage right away in the trading of values.
In the art world, people have just started talking about non-fungible tokens (NFTs) because one digital artist, Beeple, sold a piece for more than US$69 million at Christie’s in March. What do you think about this new economic model for digital art? So far, NFTs represent only one new mode of distributing artworks. I think this new model does not go far enough: instead of the expected revolution in the art world, digital artists are now paying online platforms to display and sell their artworks, and these platforms merely replace what art galleries and auctions used to do. What is positive is that this crazy sale gave visibility to digital artworks and helped legitimise their value. Covid-19 and the popular rise of the blockchain contributed to this shift. For VoV, I try to push further the model: blockchain is not only a platform for direct trading of art, but can also be a medium that artists appropriate in order to address financial, ethical and political issues. The owners of VoV tokens are not only collectors, they are also artists and traders.
This is the third part: these owners can exchange or sell their tokens, but they can also reify the value they bought, for example by printing their shapes or even by modifying their original model. In parallel, you are producing your own models derived from the tokens. We come back to creative and tangible artforms. Being immaterial, made of pure data, VoV tokens can be considered as “seeds of art”. They are grown out of an EEG-based DNA code: once you own BEAUTY 0678, for instance, you can create whatever artwork you wish from its genetic code. I recommend not to alter its original shape, created collectively in the Brain Factory, but to play with its display or its staging. After playing the curator in assessing the evolution of the shaped value, the brain worker or collector becomes also a creator. How to make sense out of a shape that may look abstract to the public? This sense is not only illustrating the value, but also expressing statements related to the value. The owner has total freedom of expression, interpretation and reification. Personally, I created a series of “twodees”, unique 2D autonomous works originating in my collection of VoV tokens. I wished to show the power of the forms that can be generated.
The shapes are very abstract. How do you differentiate FAME from COMPASSION, if not by their title? This is a form of post-symbolism. We used to search for forms that would embody meaning. Here, I reverse the process: we search for meaning in given forms. I also play a lot with texture, colour and light. With today’s software, you can even produce meat-like textures, so there is an unlimited field of possibility when it comes to reifying a value. In fact, it is a very rewarding exercise. FRIENDSHIP 522 might seem at first glance surprising: an agglutination of falling forms. However, the shape is soft, like friendship, and its honey-like colour evokes a sweet taste.
It is also sticky, just as, sometimes, friends can be. As for STRENGTH 473, it is a golden, dynamic form, whose shadow is bigger than its model. You can interpret this as an ironic representation of STRENGTH: apparently, it is not who you are that matters, but how people perceive who you are.
Collectors become artists, curators and traders, while economic and financial models invade the art world: you are indeed blurring all the usual benchmarks by which art is judged. Is this a way to push back the boundaries of art, or a kind of provocation? This is a reality that people need to acknowledge. Art as an object has already become an autonomous subject, able to perceive, adapt, react and express. Today, with the digital world, art is everywhere, deeply pervasive: it reaches all fields of human activity, all levels of human society. I wish to contribute to this mutation by conceiving artforms that are ubiquitous, catalytic and revealing. I also think that the categories that define today’s actors in the art world are not relevant any more. Curators have become artists; artists have become art critics and curators; critics are now art market designers; and spectators, through social networks, are now trendsetters. In the exhibition that we are preparing with Osage Art Foundation, I will add more virtual agents, often what we call artificial intelligence, who will also engage with the works: after the Virtual Poet converting effective trading into transactional poetry, The Reader will try to associate the shapes of the values with Chinese characters, an Interpreter will use these words to write philosophical or ethical statements, and, finally, a Scientist will generate in real time a Periodic Table of Values, reflecting the relative distribution of the values in private collections. In a next step, I would like collectors of VoVs to display their Face Values, a selection of their favourite values, as a new way to represent themselves. It might add some complexity to the market’s activities: buying and exchanging values anonymously is different from doing it openly, as if, beyond focusing on what you invest in, you wished to show what you stand for.
You are mimicking the stock exchange and models of today’s cryptocurrency market. Does this mean you acknowledge the way they lead the world? For me, the process that I call sublimation, which consists of converting the world into discrete units like shells, numbers, coins, words, letters, atoms and bits, contributes to a better understanding of the world. At the same time, it allows transactions and dialogue, analysis and measurement, abstraction and representation. The sublimation process converts everything into data, from the universe to its living beings, including their actions and their thoughts. This is one side of the coin. The other is the reification, where thoughts and data can be converted into objects constituting our physical reality. The Brain Factory was focusing on this aspect of human activity. Developed by Karl Marx, and interpreted by György Lukács and Guy Debord, the concept of reification is very powerful. We could translate it as the commodification or even thingification of thought. If LOVE and SEX become something you can buy and sell, if COMPASSION and PEACE become commodities, you are not only addressing the power of money over any kind of other value, but you are also creatingthe possibility of observing finance making sense.
Transactions between POWER and PEACE, SEX and MONEY are measured in the same way as other stocks. When in June 2019 we launched Value of Values in Seoul, at Art Center Nabi, as an IVO, or Initial Value Offering, VoV tokens were produced and converted on the blockchain and traded right away. We never presented VoVs as cryptocurrency: they were born as NFTs. It is not a coin, as they are all different, and owning it means concretely owning a 3D model that you can use to duplicate, interpret, enlarge or print to make physical artworks.
Banknotes are not officially convertible into gold any more; only the symbolic value remains. VoV are not the NFTs you’ve heard about recently. Demonstrating that you can use the blockchain as a certification of ownership detached from the good, allowing pure speculation, is not satisfying if this happens without considering the process as part of the sense of the work. Value of Values integrates the blockchain as a medium, and not only as a virtual white cube, a virtual art shop. The whole process interrogates the subjective stakes that lay between values, and the public-artist-curator-dealer production chain, in their relation to many other human activities coming straight from a human’s brain, like poetry, ethics, science, philosophy or fashion.
Marcel Duchamp is an important source of inspiration for you. Is that because he escaped all preconceived frameworks? Duchamp exemplifies the transitions that happened in the art field in the 20th century. He was an art dealer and a curator, but he is well known as an artist. As a kind of joke, I recently created a post on my website entitled http://www.elsavonfreytagloringhoven.com. This baroness [Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven] was the avant-garde artist working with recycled material, mostly plumbing, who probably created Duchamp’s famous Fountain – Duchamp mentioned it in a letter to his sister. However, historians seldom remember her. To me, this story shows how the artist Duchamp has become a curator-artist, a shift which is still operational today. In my post, I propose a reinterpretation of all Duchamp’s artworks signed by Richard Mutt, Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven’s masculine pseudonym, a post-mortem appropriation closing the loop of the original appropriation by Duchamp.
杜象是你重要的靈感來源，是否因為他脫離了所有先入為主的框架？杜象代表了20世紀藝術領域的變化。他曾是個藝術品商人和策展人，但最為人所知是他的藝術家身份。話說回來我想起一件趣事，我最近在個人網站上張貼了一篇名為www.elsavonfreytagloringhoven.com的貼文。這位男爵夫人[Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven]是名前衛藝術家，主要使用水管等可回收物料創作。參考杜象寫給姐姐的信中內容，他的名作《泉》或許是由男爵夫人所創作，但歷史學家很少提起她。對我而言這個故事顯示了藝術家杜象成為策展人/藝術家的過程，這轉變至今仍然常見。在我的貼文中，我重新詮釋了杜象所有署名為Richard Mutt（Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven的男性筆名）的作品，以擅自進行的事後調查終結因杜象而起的擅用循環。