In Science or Art, Curiosity is the Driver

  • Culture
  • University

In his first phase of research, Kaspar Ravel, artist in residence at Sorbonne University, met passionate researchers who are a real source of inspiration. He tells us about these encounters, the different aspects of his artistic project and the next steps of his residency.

With which researchers did you first have the opportunity to discuss your artistic research project?  
Kaspar Ravel: One of the first people I had the opportunity to discuss my research topic with was Simone Azeglio, a researcher in computational neuroscience at the Institut de la Vision (Sorbonne University/CNRS/Inserm). We both share a passion for images and how they take shape through the work of the retina and the brain. Last month he showed me a newspaper article about dissecting an artificial intelligence, taking a neural network and looking at what’s going on inside. I didn’t even know that was possible! That was the trigger and I told him I wanted to work together on the dissection of AI. I wanted to demystify these technologies by literally dismantling them to understand their inner workings and discover how they "perceive" images. Since then, Simone and I have been working together on this project, and we find ourselves as much at home in the analytical method as in the search for new aesthetics and forms.

What other aspects of your research are you developing?
K.R.: This year I decided to conduct research on what I call the discrete forms of the image. In my collaboration with Simone, these correspond to the ways in which the image is cut up into small pieces by the AI = be understood by the same system. But discretisation of an image is possible in other ways... 

This is where I like to make the connection between ’discretisation’ and ’discretion’. A whole area of my research concerns digital compression, whether of images or sound, algorithms that must reduce the size of files discreetly, without it being too obvious or audible.

To develop this aspect, I went to the Collegium Musicae, where I met two researchers, Jean-Marc Fontaine and Hugues Genevois. Together we talked about compression not as a tool, but as an experiment. Sometimes, digital compression or radio wave modulation can help to create illusions, to bring out things that do not exist. With Hugues Genevois, we talked a lot about the concept of "haunted media" (a term coined by the professor and cultural historian of media and cinema, Jeffrey Sconce). He told me that certain sound artefacts, such as the static you can hear on the radio, once gave the impression that the dead wanted to communicate with us. This kind of spiritual projection is ubiquitous at all technological scales. That said, it’s more of a social experiment than a scientific truth, so it was interesting to be able to talk about this with scientists.

Recently, I also met Anaïs Abramian, a researcher at the Institut Jean Le Rond d’Alembert (Sorbonne University/CNRS), She is a specialist in the physics of natural disasters and studies the granular environment. In short, she works on the way in which very small forms such as grains of sand react to mechanical forces. There is an obvious and poetic link to be made between the grain of sand and the discrete form, but for the moment I am still thinking about how I can add it to my exhibition.

I realised that I had much in common with the researchers.

Did the idea for the theme of the exhibition come about as a result of your various meetings with researchers?  
K.R.: In fact, during the whole research phase, I was thinking of focusing my project on the fold: the fold in all its forms, both the folds of matter and those of the mind. On the advice of a student in the Faculty of Arts & Humanities, I read Gilles Deleuze’s Le pli, which helped me understand the concept of image differently, as a point of view on the world, folded and folded in on itself.

The subject of discrete forms came to me later, in the course of my discussions with the researchers. The more the residency progressed, the more it seemed logical to consider the image not as a single point of view, but as the sum of many small elements... The idea that the image is granular in essence appeals to me.

Artists and scientists live in different worlds. At least, that’s what one might think. Did you manage to understand each other, to speak the same language?
K.R.: Yes, and that’s what made me happy. Whether you are a scientist or an artist, you are often brought together by absurd subjects or subjects that arouse curiosity, sometimes even on the fringe of reason. To return to the subject of haunted media, I am thinking for example of the scientist Thomas Edison and his project to invent the necrophone, a tool he wanted to create to communicate with the dead. Research can sometimes take unexpected directions, which defy understanding. It is scientific, artistic and cultural all at the same time. I think this is our common language.

One word to sum up this early experience at Sorbonne University.
K.R.: Gratifying! Many doors have been opened to me and this is still true today. I also realised that I had a lot in common with the researchers, and I had some very open discussions with them on a host of subjects. I also enjoy meeting other Sorbonne University staff. I was a bit shy at first, but now I often spend my lunch breaks on different floors of the Zamansky Tower, which houses Sorbonne University’s administrative services, or in the afternoons, strolling around the FabLab. These are always pleasant moments!

What’s next on your agenda?
K.R.:Now that all the communication and research is finished, I’m starting to work non-stop on my works and the exhibition. I’m also going to set up the "performed" conference and the workshop, which I’ll be doing in May.

My lecture, entitled "3310 Labyrinths", will explain my research on the folds and folds of matter using the labyrinth as a subject of study, the idea being is to understand what makes a labyrinth, and to propose artistic ways of solving one.

Finally, for my workshop, I want to question the notion of good or bad image quality, by deconstructing the qualitative expectations towards the digital image. I will teach participants to use the JPEG compression algorithm to create a work.