(mis)adventures of a technology artist in Paris
I can't think of a better image to start with than the mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo visiting my lab in 2014. I was the director and creator of the first fablab dedicated to artist creation in Paris. The following photo is an example of the many tours that I was obliged to host for the company who claimed responsibility for my work at that time, Digitalarti (Digital Art International). Shortly after the time of this photo I received a letter from the French government demanding that I leave the territory in a minimum of 30 days or else they would come looking for me.
The space was granted to me personally by representatives of Paris City Hall after recognizing my talents and willingness to share my knowledge with others. For the record these representatives of City Hall helped me a lot in my struggles as an immigrant in France. I am still grateful to them for their support at that time. I sought to please these people, however they were not the ones I mostly had to answer to.
For the sake of context, I am American and I have lived in France since 2011. Until late 2016 I was without papers. That's 5 1/2 years total having lived without rights in France. No right to work, no right to rent an apartment, no right to safely leave and return to the country, no rights. The correct word I suppose is clandestine. Sometimes I called it purgatory. With the bureaucracy in particular I still call it quicksand; the more you struggle the quicker you sink; best thing to do is lay down and drink a bottle of wine with some bread and cheese (which is fine if you have no ambitions in life). It was incredibly challenging, and remains so today.
When arriving in France I desperately needed help. I consciously decided that a better approach to meeting people would be to offer help instead of asking for it. This approach worked for the most part, however I can say now that I was naive in assuming that the people I assisted, especially those with money and power, would eventually do the math and understand my urgency to obtain a visa. Despite the odds, and the indifference of many of those surrounding me at the time, I believe I managed to keep a pretty good attitude for about 2 years. The third year however was all downhill.
As the director of the Artlab I was quite occupied with many things. I installed and maintained the space myself for the first year before being granted an intern for assistance. I conducted all the necessary research for materials and tool orders while keeping open source alternatives in technology at the forefront for purposes of keeping a low budget (no Apple, no Windows = no need to answer for exorbitant expenses). I conducted private and public workshops in electronics and programming at low cost. I initiated and structured a program for artist residencies, despite objections from shareholders of the trademarked Artlab®. I launched community efforts to invite curious enthusiasts into the space. I invited schools. I provided personal assistance to local artists and designers developing projects with custom electronics. I gave tours of the lab and my work to visitor groups on a daily basis. I attended weekly meetings with board members of Digital Art International, a company run by bankers and aristocrats holding no more than a voyeur's education in art and technology. Since I myself couldn't legally receive monetary reimbursements in exchange for the time and service I granted them, a friend of mine would sign contracts in my place and was paid minimum wage for my role as the director of the trademarked Artlab®. How and why did I do all this? I was deeply passionate about my work, and I was desperate for someone to help me with my immigration. In this particular story I never achieved my final goal.
To contextualize a little bit more, I received my education at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Like many prestigious schools in the U.S. mine cost me an arm and a leg. This means nothing in France. Hardly worth mentioning it. The reaction is generally, "sucks for you." A university here costs about €500 a year. I finished my last 2 years of studies in the art & technology department at my school. I also worked for the department assisting professors, maintaining the labs, even teaching courses as an undergraduate. I assumed a lot of responsibility and in return I had access to everything, keys to all the rooms. The director of this department at the time was the famed genetics artist Eduardo Kac. He was never there. I understood after finishing my studies that the guy was just a marketing ploy for the school. I personally was sold on his legend myself when entering the school. He was famous for allegedly modifying the genes of a rabbit so it would glow in the dark. After my experiences I can attest that the story of making glowing rabbits is entirely blown out of proportion for marketing purposes, to which I like many others fell for. Even renowned Australian artist Stelarc explained to me when we met that they were good friends but that this story of him making glowing rabbits was a steaming load of promotional b̶a̶g̶e̶l̶e̶a̶t̶e̶r̶.
I met Eduardo several times while working as a student in his department. Met his kids, etc, whatever. Long story short, 5 years later I am directing a fablab in Paris. While at work I receive a call from a friend asking me if I know the artist Eduardo Kac, if I would like to join them for dinner. Of course I accept. On my way out I cross paths with local curator Julie Miguirditchian. She never has time for me. She's bragging to me that she's gonna meet with the glorious Eduardo Kac on Skype. I tell her that's great, nothing else. I wasn't going to insist. I understood it was worth nothing. On the table next to her is a magazine published by Digitalarti, the company she works for and who pays my friend minimum wage to have me as their lab director. A story about Eduardo Kac is on the cover. Again I say nothing. Later that evening I am dining with him. He thinks I'm some random French guy. I eventually tell him I graduated from his department in Chicago. No response. No congratulations, no questions, nothing. Considering my efforts and the massive student debt I accumulated by following his lead I will admit that this kinda hurt, but whatever. I understood quickly that he preferred to talk about himself, so I told him I cleaned his office once. Suddenly I had his attention. He asked me who gave me the authorization to do so. He seemed upset. I then changed the subject. I told him I saw an article about him in a magazine published by the people I was working with. He responded by brushing me off and telling the woman next to him that the company didn't have enough money to be of any interest. This exchange was a painful awakening for me, but educational nonetheless. I finished by telling myself I never want to be like this guy.
Returning to life as director of a fablab in Paris, the tours for which I was to perform became quite draining after the first 2 years. Getting real work done became a struggle. Representatives from the company I worked with would demand ceaselessly that I present myself and my work for investors, political affiliates, clients, god knows who. For myself it all became a blur of faces of all kinds of important people. The reality was that I didn't understand half of what they were talking about or what function they served. I found myself obliged to talk more about what I did instead of actually doing it. The visitors would smile, take pictures and talk to me like I was some sort of exotic animal. Funny at first, but not so funny after a couple years fulfilling this function. The visitors rarely asked meaningful questions. Often we'd say something cliché to make the others laugh. With time I developed a feeling of being in a zoo. I understood that I was a sort of tourist attraction, a selling point. The details of what exactly was being sold were not shared with me.
Despite the difficulties and continual distractions of political and business interests invading the space, some good things came out of the struggle. The project Water Light Graffiti was a proof of success for the residency program that I fought to put in place. This work continues to tour the world receiving international acclaim and the artist remains a friend to this day. This was perhaps my first experience being involved in a success story of considerable magnitude. I can now say that people change when there is success like this happening in their immediate vicinity. After the first exhibition a video for the project was published on the internet and went viral. 500,000 views in the first week alone. The phone was ringing off the hook with requests for more shows. Those who didn't care, or simply didn't see the value in the project beforehand suddenly changed their tune. I observed this behavior with distaste but didn't want to fight too much about it. Everyone wanted to reclaim a piece of the success. I was pleased, sure, but personally just wanted to move on to the next residency.
During the development of this project I was equally required to welcome furniture designer Pascal Bauer, an aging man desperate to become an art star, ready to take his clothes off and put his face and his penis on important stuff, like a church, whatever could possibly make him a star.
Before my arrival in France this guy had signed a contract with the company at an advance of avg €80,000. When I was presented the proposal of the project I quickly understood it was a suicide mission. After searching a cheap engineer in all the schools, squats and hacker-spaces of Paris, the company couldn't find anybody to accept the responsibility, so I became an easy target, given my skills and my desperate situation. I did my best to help but the project was asking for a disaster. The fact that the designer was disrespectful with those assisting him (a diplomatic understatement) certainly didn't help matters. They wanted to develop in 4 months a large flexible interactive high-definition LED screen, capable even of walking or laying on it. Some very important French organization called Cap-Digital was investing the €80,000, but evidently oblivious to what they signed up for. Despite my best efforts to scale down the project to something reasonable, they insisted to continue their suicide mission. The day the project was presented it blew out the electricity in the convention center where it was exhibited. The thing was a €80,000 piece of garbage. Of course I became the scapegoat. According to the designer I was the reason for the failure. Easy to blame the immigrant. This guy didn't even know I was working for him at minimum wage without legal rights to do so, and he didn't care. After screaming at me the 3rd time on the phone I made it clear that he was never welcome to return to the lab. Despite possible consequences resulting from my personal vulnerabilities in the story, I was not going to stomach the abuse anymore.
At this point I still had the support of the person who invited me to create the Artlab and be it's director, Anne-Cécile Worms (to paraphrase her words when she granted me my position: "all your worries are over"). Closing the year 2013 I began correspondences for a project with renowned kinetic installation artist Zimoun. The company Digitalarti was boasting a lot on their website that they were in touch with literally "thousands" of engineers and artists internationally. I understood that this was entirely untrue. I was essentially their only technical support, me and my intern. I thus began negotiations for a project with artist Zimoun as an offer to the company to help validate their public claims of helping international artists. The deal was simple, the company loses no money on the project, the artist pays all the fees, the artist gets his project, the company finally can publish a true story of their achievements assisting an internationally acclaimed artist, and they get a free exhibition of his work for a chosen event to boot. But no, of course they couldn't have their cake without eating it too.
In this experience I learned a few things about business affairs and opportunist techniques. I recognized that the project in this case was desired. I had what I believed to be a golden ticket and I was pushing it forward. However the response from the company and it's associates was a sort of quicksand technique. Sometimes I wish they had just refused and said no. They never said no, but as long as the project and communication with the artist were not within their full control, it was gradually devalued with feigned ignorance and disinterest. Negotiations slowed to a snail's pace and dragged on for months. Instead weekly meetings were often dominated by discussions of a student kickstarter campaign of a keychain audio mixer for smartphones. I couldn't believe it.
The fact was that the company wanted proprietary rights to the project proposed to me by Zimoun. In as far as I can understand, their audacity in expecting so much was backed by self-induced hallucinations of world domination in the international arts. Granting the company proprietary rights in this case may have led the artist to find himself obliged to accept unexpected marketing use of his work somewhere down the road. This sort of thing of course can prove devastating for an artist's career if poorly managed. I was already witnessing legal battles resulting from other artists signing "co-production" contracts with the company. Who wants that? I certainly did not wish to lead this artist into what I perceived as a possible trap. I sincerely felt like this would have been an act of betrayal on my behalf.
After months of exhausting negotiations, I was fed up and finally wrote a letter to the artist, putting all associates of the company in copy. When I pushed the enter key it felt a lot like detonating a bomb. After this, I was finally granted the possibility to move forward with the project. My understanding was that I had to make a difficult decision, betray the company, betray the artist, or just give up entirely. I chose the artist. The production was executed during the summer while everyone was away for holidays. By that time I was homeless, sleeping in the attic at the lab.