PIERRE CASSOU NOGUES, STEPHANE DEGOUTIN et GWENOLA WAGON
Meeting with Stéphane Degoutin et Gwenola Wagon
Tuesday, March 31, 2020 at 4:00 p.m.
Université de Lille, Département ARTS
29-31 rue Leverrier, 59200 Tourcoing
Welcome to Erewhon
Erewhon emerges from images circulating on the Internet. It is a loose adaptation of a philosophical fable published in 1872 by the British writer Samuel Butler. This utopian satire, which is set in the fictitious city of Erewhon, proposes that we consider technological progress and automation as the evolution of the “machine” species, comparable to the evolution of biological species, but much faster. This hypothesis governs the habits and mores of its inhabitants, down to the smallest aspects of their lives.
The eleven chapters, each accompanied by a text, come together in a 52-minute film. They can be seen on the platform Welcome to Erewhon.
Like Butler’s narrative, « Welcome to Erewhon » depicts a city located in a parallel present. Automation has been taken to the extreme. Work as we know it has disappeared. Factories produce everything that is needed for life. Warehousing and handling are outsourced to hangars outside the city, devoid of humans. Farms raise and process plants and animals. Vehicles deliver them. Software optimizes the system. Inhabitants are freed of all chores, and devote themselves to leisurely activities. Robotic otters care for the elderly, purring when instructed by artificial intelligence software. Other robots massage inhabitants, or cook for them. Cats equipped with GPS map out the territory. Robot vacuums awaken to sensuality. Pigs have their brains networked and enlarged.
Humans, animals, and plants are linked by a data center interconnect system that processes mental matter, thus conserving the city’s memory. Algorithms can give voice to the dead. This is how the spirit of Samuel Butler can still circulate through images of the city.
A secret kinship has always connected machines and cats. In Erewhon, the two species have established a strange kind of sympathy. Humans, who have been left out, are content with exchanging images of cats riding robot vacuums.
Erewhon has many eyes, which monitor the different aspects, which monitor the different aspects of industrial processes and urban life. Yet there is nothing panoptic about the city. It preserves blind spots, which represent spans of non-existence for its inhabitants.
In Erewhon, advanced age and end-of-life are periods full of gentleness ; robots shaped like baby seals car for patients, sparing them any human contact. The robot’s snort is a concentration of all the beings one has ever loved.
Do the inhabitants of Erewhon still raise children ? Or do they instead adopt robots that don’t yell or cry, and eventually learn to love ? Is time forever frozen at the suckling stage of capitalism ? Do its inhabitants live in spas ? Are they skilled in interspecies love ? Do they come to resemble plants ? Is Samuel Butler reincarnated as a sow connected to the city’s brain ?
Lissandra Haulica, Irrévérence films
Avec le soutien de
Artec, Agence Nationale de la Recherche
Laboratoire TEAMeD, Université Paris 8
Mo Gourmelon: An initial question which you have been asked many times, but which is necessary for our audience: How did your EREWHON project come into being? What is your reading of the English writer Samuel Butler: “Erewhon, or Over the Range” (published in 1872), and “Erewhon Revisited”? Is it a literary influence that makes you divide the narrative into chapters and not into episodes, based on the usual code for a filmed series?
Pierre Cassou-Noguès, Stéphane Degoutin and Gwenola Wagon: We’ve sometimes drawn inspiration quite freely from Samuel Butler, imagining him re-appearing today and casting an eye on our day and age that’s both candid and prophetic, and proposing strange interpretations of the machines and fantasies of Silicon Valley. It’s as if he were watching videos on YouTube (we’ve been working with found footage), videos of cats as well as pet robots, and that he were commenting in his own terms, with his own references.
We’ve tried to re-create an automated city using his images lurking in the networks, and which, believe us, Samuel Butler might have anticipated, or which would have interested him.
All three of us are big fans of that novel, and it was at the root of our encounter in this project. We like Samuel Butler’s strange intellectual turn of phrase, endlessly inventing, as he did, lines of reasoning that we might call “speculative philosophy”. The chapters of the novel which make up “The Book of the Machines” (also by Butler) particularly echo the current situation, because it imagines that machines are following a path of evolution that can’t be controlled by man, just like the way Darwin described the evolution of animal and plant species.
Each chapter has to do with a facet of the city: gigantic warehouses and automated (domotic) houses, by way of abandoned offices, animal farms, even retirement homes and leisure centres. The narrator travels between these areas as if he were visiting the city he is describing out loud.
They’re chapters rather than episodes. Firstly because we’re drawing inspiration from a novel, we’re re-writing it by re-situating it in the contemporary era. Then, the episodes of a series are usually included in the time-line (the second episode describing what happens after the first), whereas our chapters tend to be organized within the space of the city, which they explore, area by area. Everything happens at the same moment. The narrator is in a sort of uchronia, a hypothetical time-period, he’s a necrobot, an algorithmic reincarnation of Samuel Butler, and he moves at the speed of information, meaning, ideally, at the speed of light.
MG: Your project involves both the choice of the series as a form, and co-working as the way the work is organized. In 2015/16, an exhibition titled “Co-Workers – The Network as Artist”, presented at the City of Paris Museum of Modern Art, made a point about this trend. How did you all decide to band together, and how have you worked as a threesome?
PCN, SD, GW: The difficulty arose from the fact that we wanted to both tell a coherent story, and explore this city, guided by a narrator, and start out from images found on the network: found footage. We didn’t film the shots ourselves. All the images we’ve used we found, or, above all, we went looking for them (a considerable task, lasting whole days). But how are you going to organize these accumulated images in a coherent narrative? Not just a few minutes of hypnotic video, but a “real” film.
We talked things over a great deal, experimented, had failures, started again, groped our way…We didn’t always agree about things (someone goes hum, hum). But in a way, in addition to the search for images, the work consisted in this orchestration of found shots. Not just an orchestration of the rest. It’s material that we’ve totally reshaped: reframing, overlay, colorization, cutting, and clipping. In some shots, we’ve got rid of the human beings one by one to give that impression of empty places, which will be the reality of automation. And we did that to incorporate those shots within a whole. We worked a huge amount on this project. And it was thankless work because the purpose was that it should go unnoticed, and people could think that the shots had been found as they are, at the top of the YouTube list, and that they re-created by themselves the automatic city imagined by Butler And the same thing goes for the text, we get people to think that it’s Butler speaking, or his algorithmic necrobot.
The film is based on retrieved material, but it’s been reshaped and re-orchestrated. What’s more, the music was composed specifically for the film by Meryll Ampe. We conceived the film by talking things over with her. And we worked with two assistant editors, Cécile Bicler and Alice de Lima, and the graphic design team of Louise Druhle and Raphaël Bastide. It was very important for us to find a platform enabling us to associate the film’s chapters with short stories. Our site (www.welcometoerewhon.com) presents a form of film-book which offers a two-dimensional approach, viewing on a horizontal line and short stories on a vertical line.