Worlds Connected

Paris-based photographer Chloé Milos Azzopardi (b. 1994) caught the art world’s attention with Les formes qu’ils habitent en temps de crise (2022), a “futuristic fable” about how we can reconnect with the natural world post-Capitalocene. Here, Azzopardi riffed on a concept that entered the vernacular in 2016 after historian Jason W. Moore’s Anthropocene or Capitalocene? Nature, History, and the Crisis of Capitalism – a book which argues that the Earth entered a new era – the Capitalocene – in the 19th century. According to Moore, contemporary crises are, all too often, rooted in “The Age of Capital.” Azzopardi’s photographic series imagined new interspecies relationships flourishing in an idyllic world: butterflies balancing on fingertips and nude figures emerging from the undergrowth. The power of nature was front and centre, with lightning strikes over horizon lines and a colour palette awash with deep greens and dreamy mauves.

Now, Azzopardi is touring a new project: Non-Technological Devices. The next stop is Copenhagen Photo Festival, and it’s a great fit for her ecologically-engaged practice. The event’s theme for 2024 is Entanglement, highlighting artists – including Elina Brotherus, Roni Horn and Thao Nguyen Phan – who are making work that reflects how human beings, their environments and their actions are “co-dependently connected.” Enter Azzopardi’s series of black-and-white images, showing low-tech sculptures made from natural materials. It has seen huge success over the past 12 months, travelling from Bristol to Melbourne, and, in July, it will land at Rencontres d’Arles, France’s iconic photography festival. In one shot, a wooden exoskeleton is layered over a hand. In another, an ice block takes the place of a virtual reality headset. The idea: to make us think about the future of technology in a world stripped of resources – an idea that looms over us all as we continue to navigate the climate crisis. We sat down with Azzopardi to speak about her love of science fiction, and how her approach to photography has developed in recent times.

A: Did you know you wanted to be a photographer? How did you start, was there a “lightbulb” moment?
CMA: I didn’t know I was going to do photography. I studied drawing, installation and performance for five years in art school, using the camera simply to help develop my other projects. The first turning point came when I was 22-years-old, during my exchange year. I went to live in Shanghai. I found the relationship between humans and images to be different there than in France. Lots of people were taking pictures of me, which enabled me to overcome the shyness I felt about photographing human beings. I started to look at my lens-based practice differently, as a medium in its own right.

A: What is the key theme behind your creative practice? Is there an idea that ties your projects together?
CMA: I’m not very original about this! To be honest, I think a deep fear of death is one of the most powerful driving forces behind my creative practice. This relationship with my own mortality is paralleled by an intense connection with the living. I’m interested in human or non-human life, and that fuels my desire to create speculative worlds that dilate time. For a long time, western philosophy has done everything to distinguish human from animal, nature from culture, to the point of thinking we were outside the sphere of the living. In Les formes qu’ils habitent en temps de crise, for example, I projected myself after this era, building a fictional ecosystem as a way of trying to repair our relationship with other creatures.

A: What about artists, filmmakers and photographers? Who has inspired your practice the most?
In terms of artists, Pierre Huyghe is a great influence. I admire performances by Francis Alÿs, as well as the seminal Process and Conceptual sculptures of Roman Signer. Chris Marker’s film La Jetée (1962) is an icon of experimental cinema, looking at time travel and the possible after-effects of a third world war. Moreover, I just discovered Éric Minh Cuong Castaing. His exhibition at Le BAL is the one that has moved me the most in recent years. The artist showed a film piece where dancers and people with mobility loss come together to create powerful and thoughtful choreographies.

A: How do you describe your pictures? Are they conceptual, documentary – or a different genre? 
CMA: I don’t know if it matters. I’d say my images cultivate a kind of poetic strangeness. My photos are always experimental because I learn by doing: I welcome accidents, let myself be carried along, invent new ways of doing things to overcome obstacles. I think the most important thing in my pictures is the relationship to sensation, touch and a form of suspension. The balance in my work is always precarious.

A: The people in Non-Technological Devices, on view at Copenhagen Photo Festival 2024, are described as “cyborgs, but with an organic twist.” Can you tell us more?
CMA: It’s a project I started in residency at the Villa Pérochon in France, under the mentorship of Joan Fontcuberta, in 2023. I see this series as a futuristic fable in which I explore alternative forms of cohabitation with Earth’s living creatures. I was thinking about the figure of the cyborg – how to extend your body – but through natural elements rather than machines. I grew up fantasising about flying cars and teleportation because I watched a lot of movies. I think a lot of us have thought about those things. But, if they can’t exist, what can we build? What might an updated, climate-conscious version of this imaginary look like? The Non-Technological Devices are composite tools made from natural elements that I assemble to mimic the various gadgets that populate our daily lives. Existing somewhere between rudimentary productions and science-fiction creations, these objects are, like our smartphones, as much extensions and augmentations of our bodies as they are hindrances. Together, these low-tech inventions help to formulate a fictional universe. I’ve also created artefacts whose uses have not yet been discovered.

A: You work with black-and-white and colour. Which do you prefer? How do you decide whether an image will fit a certain mode – before it’s taken or in post-production?
CMA: I don’t really have a preference; it depends on the project. I trained as a colourist, so colour always gives me very strong sensations. It’s almost like an inner vertigo. But I love black-and-white, too. In Non-Technological Devices, monochrome allows me to play with light and to create something that is much more minimal. It draws attention to the delicate structures present in the image. I work mainly in digital, so when I do use black-and-white, it is done in post-production. 

A: How has your approach to photography developed, and which direction do you see it taking?
CMA: My practice has changed a lot. I’ve gone from wandering around – like Guy Debord, who had the Situationist idea of “drifting” – to much more constructed images that I plan out beforehand. In the beginning, I only needed one thing: to believe that something – some surprise, some encounter – was going to happen after hours of walking if I remained open enough to every possibility. I didn’t photograph a lot of people, as their emotions scared me most of the time. Today, my practice is totally different: I fantasise about my pictures beforehand, sometimes I even dream about them. I construct the image mentally and then physically. In Non-Technological Devices I even made the objects. Recently, I’ve been taking portraits of people who aren’t my close relatives. We meet and then I get to know and understand them. It’s quite exciting and new. I’ve learned that I can scout before a shoot, but, when I take too much control, nothing works. The thing is to let go and the best shots will emerge. I follow the direction in which the accidents, performers and objects take me.

A: Others characterise your work as “surreal”, “dreamlike” and “contemplative.” What do you think?
CMA: I agree with all these descriptions. What interests me is generating fiction, poetry and other worlds capable of arousing our curiosity for terrestrial life – as if it came from another planet. My eye is more microscopic than macroscopic, so it is more natural for me to photograph a small detail than to understand how to encompass a vast landscape, for example.

A: What does the festival’s theme for 2024 mean to you?
CMA: Entanglement is at the heart of all living things. We inhabit different ecosystems where beings are interdependent, with the actions of each having repercussions on the collective. My work is about our relationship with the rest of the Earth’s multifarious organisms. As a species, we try to extract ourselves from them, even though we are intrinsically part of the same system. I look at how we exploit it and how to create new imaginaries that might help us build our future in ways that are less destructive. I’m looking forward to meeting my team and I’m curious about all the exhibitions on display. | 6 – 16 June 2024

Words: Eleanor Sutherland

Image Credits: Chloé Milos Azzopardi, from Les formes qu’ils habitent en temps de crise, (2022).