Gonzo March-April 2018
Franck Vigroux & Kurt D’Haeseleer’s Centaure: The Depths of Intuition – Eliptik Magazine
It is for Mutek that Franck Vigroux and Kurt D’Haeseleer come to present their audio-visual performanceCentaure. Depicting a future where technology merges into Mankind, Centaure is an organic performance where one can almost hear the pulses of a machine’s heart. We met them prior to the performance to discuss the themes around it.
As a half-man and half-animal being, the centaur represents nobility, strength and being untameable. What does the centaur represent to you and why have you named your performance after it?
Kurt: The centaur is a corporeal mutation. I worked a lot with manipulating images and the transformations of the body. A priori the centaur is a mythical creature, but in the piece, it represents a technological mutation of the body, which is linked to a kind of force. This force can be found in the music and images. Over the years I’ve developed a style and I realize that there are certain subjects that I always go to rework. It’s become a natural style and I don’t feel the need to explain everything that’s happening in the images. Technically speaking, I work a lot with banal images (shots of the street for example) that I transform into an expression of a sombre future, which is simultaneously contemporary.
Franck: This will be the fifth time we present at Mutek, and I think we’re coming to a final version. We’ve been working together for three years now and we’ve done a lot of shows. We’ve come to realize that when we start with a premise at the beginning of a project, things are constructed in an organic manner and it’s not necessary to theorize everything. When I write music, I have desires for formality, challenges I want to overcome, etc. The work is done starting with the sound, which is contrary to theoretical music, that I could write on paper and that could be interpreted; it’s totally concrete. With this project, the writing was done by two people, almost without theories or concepts even though we’re always vigilant that the dramaturgy remains essential.
Is it a narrative performance? If so, what’s the story it’s telling?
Franck: Yes of course, but it’s up to the individual to interpret it. It’s not a conceptual object, there’s an enormous amount of material, perspectives, rhythms; it’s a show with a lot of settings that are marked with important ruptures. And it’s in this sense that I find a kind of narration.
Kurt: There is a kind of narrative thread that is found in the images, that I would describe with words, but that’s not a story. I studied film, but what interests me today is the active material of the images, their immersive and sensorial power. However, my theoretical film school past remains a part of me and I think we can find a cinematographic aspect in what I do. I do nevertheless like working with abstractions and going into the image. I hate high definition images that become so clear they no longer appear natural. I have a tendency to go in the opposite direction, towards dirty and blurred images, and working with the actual material that is the image. We’re so used to realistic images that we want them to depict reality. I’m heavily influenced by the 1960’s experimental cinema, not in that I manipulate the reel itself, but I like to keep a part that is unexpected.
The idea of the hybrid being has a whole other aspect today with the rise of artificial organ transplants or organs that are of animal origin. What do you think will come to define the future human?
Kurt: If I could answer this question I would be very intelligent…
Franck: And I would be very pretentious! (Laughs) I know what it is to be human, I live it from morning to night, but I wouldn’t be able to define it further than that. It’s a very political question… It’s obviously the kind of question that we ask ourselves, but what we feel and our interpretation in general are based on what we create. That’s where the true answer lies. We can answer through a language that is our own; I wouldn’t describe myself as a philosopher or sociologist.
Kurt: What interests me in the question of the half-man, half-animal is this subconscious aspect — simultaneous instinct and reason. Obviously, we read many books on the subject, it’s a part of our creative process, but it’s because we choose to work with images and music that we don’t need to add words. I think that no one has a definitive answer when it comes to defining the human race, except maybe for scientists. I get the impression that the world around us is subtitled and constantly commented on. I think of museums where each work has an accompanying explanatory card. It’s important for me to come back to something else, a kind of freedom of interpretation. To look at or listen to something without someone telling us what we should be seeing forces people to reflect on things differently. I actually think that people are afraid of this. With Centaure, that’s what we’re trying to accomplish; it’s a performance that we can watch, listen to, physically live through without prejudices and without being judged, without having to know what it is or should be.
It seems you’re trying to provoke strong sensations people with Centaur. What pushes you to explore the obscure and to develop an aesthetic that’s almost horrific?
Franck: Absolutely, and I hope it really is strong! It’s a total experience. In fact, playing live helps us to also live these emotions in addition to sharing them and that’s what I love! I find it interesting to explore this darker side, firstly because it’s the side we show the least and secondly to show that it’s not something negative.
Kurt: I think this obscurity is an aspect of my personality, a kind of vision that I have within myself. I find in it a kind of sensibility that’s also destructive. Even if it’s dark or horrible, it’s a synonym to the great beauty.
You seem to denounce technology’s grip on mankind, yet your performance needs the use of new technology. Irony or paradox?
Franck: I don’t think I’m necessarily trying to denounce it. I use the tools I have and I also question myself as to what they are. What does interest me is our brains. We’re always looking to understand how they function. We understand very little about our emotions, about guilt, love, etc.
Kurt: Exactly, the goal of this performance is not to denounce, but to question technology. We live in it, it influences us. I wouldn’t say that there’s a propaganda-style message in this performance; it’s more about looking within the daily for things we hadn’t noticed before. I don’t think it’s contradictory to explore the relationship between humans and technology by using technology.
Your performance suggests a dystopian future. Do you still believe in a positive route concerning the development of machines and artificial intelligence?
Franck: I’ve worked a lot on the subject of controlled societies and I’ve also been inspired by Eugene Zamiatine’s book We. However, I don’t think Centaure is as dystopian as that — it’s much more organic. The performance’s presentation text has changed three times already, and there were themes that were more important in the beginning that have now practically disappeared. There isn’t really an explanation forCentaure, you just have to accept having to interpret it for yourself.
Kurt: Franck and I send each other many texts and ideas. We share common interests and tastes, and we create a mutual world this way. It’s something that develops throughout time. Ten years from now we can look back and say “ah! Now I understand why I did that”. What we’re doing now is too close to us to be able to see it in its entirety. If my process was only transcribing what I’ve read most recently, that wouldn’t be assimilation, it would be false in a way. I really like the works of a photographer who takes photos and waits twenty years before he develops them. That’s of course the other extreme. What’s important is building a creative environment. Instinct guides us towards someone or something that we can work on. This subconscious aspect brings us to the right choice; everything isn’t based on conscious decisions. The proof would be when we’re looking for a solution to a problem all day long and the answer comes to us in our dreams. We shouldn’t underestimate our emotional and intuitive intelligence.
TEKSTEN – Kurt d’Haeseleer
Digital Landscapes (in Bastard or Playmate – Theater Topics2012/University Gent-Amsterdam University Press)
The Meta-Picturesque Qualities of Kurt d’Haeseleer’s Audiovisual Sceneries
Theatre that incorporates other media into its performance space is as old as Greek tragedy. The integration of word, music, image and gesture in one frame presupposes theatre as the intermedial art practice par excellence. That is at least the basic argument of the Theatre and Intermediality Research Working Group, substantiated in their first publication (Chapple & Kattenbelt 2006).1 Theatre, in Kattenbelt’s formulation, has a distinctive capacity to be a ‘hypermedium’ that is able to ‘stage’ other mediums (ibid. 37). As the ‘stage of intermediality’, theatre mutates media into mixed forms that both thematize and question the role of media in our contemporary mediatised culture (ibid. 38). However, the mutating paradigm of the present issue of Theater Topics works in two directions and can be understood as the mutual interference and contamination of different media into ‘new’ or hybrid forms that are hard to categorize. In a text on hybrid art, Elke Van Campenhout, a Belgium-based freelance dramaturge and researcher, distinguishes ‘mutants’ and ‘monsters’ as two variations of a contemporary artistic practice operating in the grey zone between performance and visual arts, between science and the gallery. ‘Mutants’ are types of work that abandon their disciplinary frames, but at the same time (and by doing this) they inquire, question and reinforce the existing disciplines. The second category she characterizes as ‘monsters’: artworks as a hotch- potch of elements that by no means refer to a particular discipline or identity (Van Campenhout 2008).
The versatile artistic practice of Kurt d’Haeseleer (1974) exemplifies the difficulty, even the impossibility, of cataloguing this kind of hybrid work into one particular discipline, resulting in both mutants and monsters. With a background as a video artist, d’Haeseleer designs visual machineries by combining elements of painting, video clips, cinema, performance and installation art. After his studies at Sint-Lukas (Brussels), he was invited by Peter Missotten to join the collective De Filmfabriek. Recently this collective mutated into DE WERKTANK, a factory for new and old media art, which is coordinated by d’Haeseleer and Ief Spincemaille. The early collaboration with Missotten resulted in several monumental video installations for intermedial theatre, opera and dance projects, such as The Woman Who Walked into Doors (2001) and Haroen en de Zee van Verhalen (2001), both directed by Guy Cassiers for Ro theater. D’Haeseleer further designed the videography of other international productions, of which his collaborations with Georges Aperghis and Ictus (Paysage sous Surveillance, 2002 and Avis de Tempête, 2004) and choreographer Isabelle Soupaert (Kiss of Death, 2007) have been the most noticed. Many of these video designs are already canonical in their profound reshaping of the use of (new) media in live performances. They exemplify how theatre functions as a hypermedium in ‘staging’ other media.
Next to these ‘videographies’, d’Haeseleer developed self-proclaimed visual ma- chineries such as S*CKMYP (2004) and Scripted Emotions (2006). Together with his participation to Joji Inc’s relay performance ERASE-E(X) (2006), these ‘mutants’ will be the focus of this chapter, as I consider them as paradigmatic for his multifaceted practice. Notwithstanding the interdisciplinary nature of this work, however, there is a distinctive feature that characterizes the majority of d’Haeseleer’s oeuvre. Whether it concerns an experimental short film, the VJ or live cinema of a music performance, an interactive installation or the videography of a performance, all of these works appear as digital landscapes as a result of their outspoken pictorial cinematography. Based on state-of-the-art digital montage and production technologies, d’Haeseleer builds video sceneries that far exceed the specificity of the cinematographic medium, expanding the image into a sculpted story world. It is no coincidence, then, that the singularity of d’Haeseleer’s varied practice is often described in graphic terms, emphasizing the picturesque quality of his cinematic universe. As a digital painter he is said ‘to give life to the bare pixel material of seemingly everyday shots in wonderful, organic and associative images’ (World Wide Video Festival). The landscape might thus function as the appropriate figure to gain insight into the mutating mechanisms operating this growing oeuvre.
In this light, I will demonstrate how Kurt d’Haeseleer constructs digital landscapes that furthermore can be considered as a specific kind of meta-picture. In the line of Gertrude Stein’s Landscape Play, this pictorial motif functions as a theoretical concept, which enables us to relate d’Haeseleer’s video designs to the aesthetic tradition of the landscape. In addition, it hints at the spatial and immersive dimension of his cinematographic environments causing a shift from a mere understanding to an embodied experience as the spectator is called upon his/her active presence. Eventually, by putting parallel cinematographic environments en abyme, the digital landscapes of d’Haeseleer appear to be ‘meta-pictures’ in which aspects of time and space are juxtaposed. This concept introduced by W. J. T. Mitchell can be described as ‘pictures that show them- selves in order to know themselves: they stage the “self-knowledge” of pictures’ (Mitchell 1994: 48). In short, meta-pictures are pictures that refer to themselves or to other pictures and as such they provide their own meta-language; they consist of a levelled structure that offers a reflection on its own status as image and, by extension, an involved observer.2
It is our argument that d’Haeseleer’s landscapes stage the act of looking by drawing in the active presence of a spectator. Moreover, the formal use of mise en abyme appears to comprise the central motif in d’Haeseleer’s post-apocalyptic imagery. As we will demonstrate, these nested landscapes visualize the hybrid and networked space we live in. Working from the premise that this interdisciplinary practice can be qualified as ‘meta-pictures’, it is considered a ‘theoretical object’ (Mieke Bal 2002: 61). Instead of mere illustrations to theory, it ‘pictures theory’ (Mitchell 1994: 49). Put differently, the notion of the landscape functions both as a metaphor and as a theoretical concept to in- vestigate and picture what this particular practice can add to the understanding of intermedial or hybrid forms of performance art.
As a specific kind of meta-picture, the notion ‘mise en abyme’ points to a particular representational structure (or strategy) that places related parallel worlds behind – or within– each other. Mostly known as a narrative figure denoting ‘a play within a play’ or ‘a story within a story’, mise en abyme in fact originates from a pictorial tradition, referring to an image that infinitely doubles oneself as a reflective split off from the stem world.3 The mechanism is harder to define than to indicate as some illustrious examples have become canonical. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, for instance, a troupe of actors stages a play in which key actions of the main plot are dramatized. In a pictorial tradition, Vélazquez’ Las Meninas is the classic example of a picture-within-a-picture. Even more popular as a clarifying exemplar is the ‘Quaker Oats principle’. The expression refers to the packages that include in their design a smaller picture of the package itself, duplicating its framing image (also called the Droste effect). This spatial figure breaks open the depicted narrative landscape and hints at underlying parallel worlds by means of an embedding strategy: a frame opens a window to another world beyond that frame, which opens again a new window, etcetera.
Given its cheerful play with mirrors and reflection and its feasibility to picture infinity, the mise en abyme became an attractive visual device for surrealist painters. René Magritte, for instance, frequently made use of mirrors and windows to frame a parallel surrealistic universe beyond that frame. But probably the best known for his labyrinthine use of the infinity motif is the Dutch graphic artist M. C. Escher. His complex landscapes turn out as never-ending loops. Combining mirror images of cones, spheres, cubes, rings and spirals with a perfect knowledge of perspective, these scenes mislead the senses and cause an effect of breathtaking infinity. Exactly this structure of infinity is one of the characterizing features of the mise en abyme, which at the same time constitutes its paradoxical double nature. The never-ending motif has the compelling power to immerse the beholder in a tunnel of infinite multiplications, while its ability to disorient and disrupt the representational totality in which it appears draws attention to its own artificial status.4 This self-reflective nature counts for the disposition of the mise en abyme as a meta-picture: its layered structure incites a reflection on its own status as image and, by extension, an involved observer.
Fig. 1 S*CKMYP © Peter Missotten.
Embedding the Landscape
S*CKMYP, a production based on a text by Peter Verhelst, was d’Haeseleer’s first full- length experimental film produced by De Filmfabriek. In the installation of the same name, which premiered at the 2004 World Wide Video Festival in Amsterdam, the moving pictures (chapters) were split up over four projection screens, while the hypnotic voice of Peter Verhelst and the soundscape by Köhn, a project of Belgian composer Jurgen Deblonde, drove the visitors along an endless succession of never-ending stories. By means of parabolic speakers, the sound was organized to enclose the visitor in an aural area before the screen, banishing the surrounding sounds to background buzzing. Following an individual track along the different tableaux, the visitor could discover several parallel unfolding narratives. In other words, the set-up allowed for an individ- ual trajectory along the different sceneries reminiscent of the cut-up structure of the pageant plays of the Middle Ages.5 This arrangement resulted in an endless variation of story chains, personally threaded by the wandering visitor. Consequently, the cinematographic experience became extremely individualized, as the multilinear story lines incite a multitude of interpretations and experiences. Much as in reading Verhelst’s prose, which is always highly individual and full of ambiguities, it is up to the ‘reader’/viewer to weave the modular story fragments into a coherent and meaningful experience.
By making use of visual fragmentation and narrative modularity, Kurt d’Haeseleer builds further on the so-called ‘expanded cinema’ projects of the 1960s in which video artists experimented with the limitations of the conventional frame in order ‘to free film from its flat and frontal orientation and to present it with an ambience of total space’ (Youngblood 1970: 361). Opening up the image-space and offering a multitude of narrative perspectives to the visitor of the diegetic environment provoked a significant disruption of traditional linear forms of narration.
A similar shift occurred in theatre practice, where ‘classic’ linear dramatic forms of plot development were replaced with more spatially oriented dramatic forms in which narrative elements were juxtaposed. Inspired by the aesthetics of landscape painting and nineteenth-century panoramas, Gertrude Stein, for instance, introduced the notion of the Landscape Play to characterize her own drama texts. Although Stein’s dramas are neither scenic landscapes nor the verbal depiction or evocation of a landscape, she considered her texts as landscapes (Stein 1998b). According to Stein expert Jane Bowers, the analogy is based on a specific use of language. That is why Bowers suggests the term ‘lang-scapes’ as a more accurate neologism for such plays, as they are more involved with spatial configurations of language itself that, like landscapes, frame and freeze visual moments and alter perception (1991: 26). Stein considered the theatre stage as a platform on which landscapes of words could be arranged and put in motion. Although initially a rather conceptual notion – Stein’s plays were hardly performed on stage – the notion of the landscape play was picked up by Hans-Thies Lehmann to conceptualize what he called ‘postdramatic theatre’: plays that move the focus from the text to the overall scenic atmosphere without a causal logic steering the course of the narrative. ‘Just as in her texts the representation of reality recedes in favour of the play of words, in a “Stein theatre” there will be no drama, not even a story; it will not be possible to differentiate protagonists and even roles and identifiable characters will be missing’ (Lehmann 2006: 63).
This approach of narrative as a landscape, with a structure open to discover, is in accordance with a contemporary notion of narrative in cognitive science. Proceeding from cognitive psychology and perception theory, these paradigms no longer regard narrative as a literary discourse but as a way to organize human experience. In the spirit of a Gombrichian thesis of the beholder’s share, cognitivist art theory attributes an important role to the reader/viewer in the construction of narrative content and experiences.6 Stories are ‘mental constructs that we form as a response to certain texts, artworks, discourse acts and, more generally, as a response to life itself ’ (Ryan 2006: 647).7 Narratives are the semiotic realization of these mental constructs: their inscriptions as texts, images and sounds are the material output of this desire. To reconstruct a story, the reader will do what Wolfgang Iser has called ‘filling in the gaps’ to construct a plot – i.e. imagine untold episodes that glue lexica together to a meaningful and coherent story world (Iser 1972: 285).8 In the case of S*CKMYP, for instance, the ‘multilineal verbosity’ (Rieser 2002: 148) of Verhelst’s prose and the open structure of the corresponding sound and imagery leaves a certain freedom to the visitor to wander through the narrative and ‘fill in the gaps’ according to one’s own discretion. (S)he can do so by framing expectations about upcoming events, fit actions into larger frameworks and apply schemas derived from personal knowledge and experience and literary and cinematic tradition (Bordwell 1985). In this view, narration can be broadened to the human capacity to understand abstract data as meaningful structures by means of interpreta- tion patterns.
The narrative world of S*CKMYP is indeed a fragmented landscape, with the cut-up structure of a dream. The spectator is dropped into a kaleidoscopic labyrinth, driven through the landscape of screens by the mesmerizing voice of the author as a narrative guide:
Maybe you have the feeling you’ve stepped into a dream In which someone dreams it’s the real world.
Maybe, someone whispers, we live in a parallel world That in the end is no different from our own. (D’Haeseleer & Verhelst 2004; transcription)
Although Verhelst’s address is very intimate and direct – ‘you remember her smell, her warmth’ – one is never certain whether the voice reports on a vague memory, an interior monologue or a daydream. Rather than illustrating the spoken words, the successive tableaux on the four screens depict a threatening and alienated atmosphere of people, bodies wandering through a postmodern industrial landscape. The camera pans along nocturnal sceneries of suburban (Flemish) districts and new housing estates. The people inhabiting these scenes resemble slowly moving sculptures; contrary to the speed of the camera, they stray through the landscape in slow motion. These tableaux visualize ‘a collection of the stolen dreams, fears and thoughts of its unsuspecting inhabi- tants’ that is melted into an impressive audiovisual universe (D’Haeseleer & Verhelst 2004).
Following two people, a man and a woman, the beholder is only partly able to see what these characters are doing as they gradually become overgrown by a web of visual layers, encapsulating them in their own world. At the same time, one seems to observe the scenery from a distant, capsular position, as a lot of film shooting is done from within (or on top of ) a driving car (or moving vehicle) scanning a generic urban landscape. This clearly detached, voyeuristic viewing position – often manifestly that of a surveillance camera – contrasts sharply with the direct address of the narrating voice. The specific personal address in sentences such as ‘maybe you have the feeling you’ve stepped into a dream’ repeats irrevocably the tone of the hypnotist who carries the dreamer away in the labyrinth of one’s memories. From the apparent distanced position, the visitors of S*CKMYP discover how successive worlds roll out as a mise en abyme, submerging them in a rabbit hole of continually underlying stories. The manifold structure is in fact evoked in the text read aloud, unfolding its different narrative levels:
You sink into the bottom of a sleep. There is really nothing to worry about. […] You sink into the bottom of a new sleep. […] You sink through a bottom whereupon you sink again through a bottom. Etcetera. Maybe all this is just a joke. Maybe you are the privileged witness of your own death. It’s the end of an ordinary day. Maybe you are finally part of a story, whose coherence hadn’t yet been grasped. (D’Haeseleer & Verhelst 2004; transcription)
Verhelst thus makes this form of never-ending stories explicit, providing the key to unlocking the meta-levels of the narrative experience. ‘Maybe you are part of a story,’ the voice suggests, referring to a type of frame-within-a-frame story in which the act of mirroring both integrates the beholder/reader and at the same time makes him/her aware of the fictional nature of the event. This play of mirrors and reflection is exactly one of the characteristic features of the mise en abyme: in the act of construction and deconstruction, meaning turns out to be unstable and the story becomes aware of its own ontological status, ‘a story whose coherence hadn’t yet been grasped’.
As mentioned, d’Haeseleer does not visualize the narrative content of Verhelst’s poetry on a literal level. Nevertheless, he does mimic the structure of the narrative, which is a succession of parallel cut-up worlds, spread out along the multiple screens, which relate to each other as fragments of a dreamlike tale. But also on a visual plane the pixel dramas of d’Haeseleer reflect the ‘multiverse’ of parallel worlds by repeating it on a micro-level: zooming in on seemingly unimportant details of the images, enlarging them to the granular character of their pixel structure, the apparent imperceptible material character of the vibrating electronic networks become visible, almost tangible, opening up and referring to the existence of networked spaces. The dialectics at work between text and image (and sound, although not the focus of this analysis) creates in this way another meta-picture – installing another frame around the previous frames – that brings the hybrid ontology of reality in a digital age to the surface, reflecting a multi- verse composed of parallel possible worlds.9
Metapicturing the Landscape
The promise and despair of the postmodern urban condition are recurring topics in d’Haeseleer’s digital landscapes. Fossilization (2005), for instance, an experimental video commissioned by the International Film Festival of Rotterdam that received a prize at the COURTisane Festival in Ghent (2005), was also perceived and described in an apocalyptic idiom as a hermetic meditation about the cheerful downfall of Western society (COURTisane, 2005). In a self-proclaimed ‘filthy cocktail of pixels’, d’Haeseleer tackles contemporary issues such as oil dependence, social segregation, mass tourism and mass media. Through a process of morphing which has become his artistic method and signature, seemingly everyday images are rendered as if they are stretched out, crumpled and folded open again. This computer procedure in which one image is smoothly transformed into another, or combined using digital tweening, gen-
Fig. 2 Fossilization © Kurt d’Haeseleer
erates an unpredictable special effect. Although this rendering is a digital procedure, the resulting granular and contaminated imagery is surprisingly reminiscent of former analogue processes of image making. ‘At first sight,’ a critic describes, ‘Fossilization looks as if the magnetic video tape escaped from the cassette, was badly wrinkled, then stretched out again and fiddled back onto the reel’ (Vinken & van Kampen, s.d.). Both appealing and alienating, the outcome of this ‘poetics of ambiguity’ is once again a digital landscape inhabited by people carrying heavy loads whilst struggling against the wind, and somersaulting cars that seem to float. Offering once more a reflection on the influence of digital technology on our contemporary living condition, d’Haeseleer elaborates on issues he already explored in early films such as File (2000). This short film has been characterized as a crossbreed between a video clip, an essay, an action movie, a documentary and a commercial about a relationship between two people losing each other in a world of digital overdrive.
In Scripted Emotions (2006), his subsequent interactive cinematographic installation which was awarded with special honours at Transmediale in Berlin, this ‘poetics of ambiguity’ must be conceived somewhat differently. Two tourist binoculars generate a trompe l’oeil, a panoramic landscape that seems to be a visual translation of a world wherein every detail is predicted. However, the landscape changes as soon as the beholder looks in another direction. The movable tourist binoculars of Scripted Emotions look out on both sides of a cinematographic panorama. The first pair provides a view over a gloomy car park in the shadow of a desolate cinema complex. The second, placed diametrically opposed to the first, opens up to a shiny tableau of cheerful fountains in a park. Whenever one changes viewing direction by panning through the landscapes, the haunted characters of this environment disappear and reappear once more. Lonely figures roam through the landscape and turn out to have disappeared once you look back. Someone is taking his dog out. A couple is loading a car. Another character is crawling on hands and knees out of a bush. A dark woman yells at you from a distance. All of a sudden you face a man who stares back at you. But when you look away and back he seems to have vanished.
Yet again d’Haeseleer generates a story world without a fixed path or ending. Built on the foundations of the software from an old first-person shooter game, the installation engenders a surround environment that corresponds to the subdivided composition of early modern viewing apparatuses such as panoramas and dioramas. The surround imagery is split up in strips that function as separate frames. Within these invisibly demarcated frames, an image or object can transform independently from its adjacent frames. As a result, the rhythm, direction and succession of events are dependent on the movements of the spectator, who steers the narrative by panning around with the binoculars. In this regard, d’Haeseleer explores the possibilities of an interactive montage or editing that instead of following a sequential causal logic, once again opens up a countless range of possibilities.
With the aspect of interactivity in art, we enter a fuzzy zone. The term ‘interactivity’ refers mainly to the relationship between a person and a machine, notably in modern technological media calling for the viewer’s participation. This participative aspect, however, seems to be the main reason for its generic and ambiguous use, as it recalls different types of activities. Interacting with a work of art is at once to look at it, touch it, sense it, enter it, manipulate it, comment on it, criticize it and so on (Kreplak 2008: 6). Although one or more of these criteria can be ascribed to a wide range of artworks, the prominence of action as a dimension of the work seems to be the determining feature here. Its attractiveness probably marks a paradigm shift from a distanced contemplation of art in favour of an active, participative relation privileged in contemporary art practices and cognitive theory, following again Gombrich’s thesis of the beholder’s share.
Although we support this general interactive approach of the aesthetic relation to art and media, we believe that calling every piece of art ‘interactive’, however, would miss the point. Interactive practices do indeed have a common and at the same time distinctive feature: the wish to develop less autarchic forms of art, in which the co-presence of work and visitor is an essential aspect of the mutual effects of the art practice. Significant in this context is the act of placing the beholder at the centre of the artwork, which amounts to his or her inclusion in the work not only as a subject looking at the art but also as a participating agent. The visitors thus find themselves reflected or implicated in the work, engaged in the action, becoming in the words of Boal a ‘spectactor’, which irrevocably determines one’s relation to the work. Placing the viewer on ‘the inside’ of the image is, nonetheless, more than a shift from perception to engagement. As it radically changes one’s position and perspective towards the depicted events, it demands a fundamental reconsideration of our relation to artworks.
In this light, we can consider the apparatus of Scripted Emotions as a digital re-enactment of the diorama crossed with the set-up of an early modern peepshow. As ‘a kind of theatre without actors and storylines, partly optical and partly mechanical’, the diorama was a moving variant of the panorama, originally conceived by Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre and the artist Charles Marie Bouton (Huhtamo 2010: 249). In this modern viewing machine, the audience was placed central in a sloping amphitheatre that mechanically rotated around its axis. The appeal was based on the trick of atmospheric transformations and animated view by means of a play on light and transparency painting, mechanical motion and elaborate sound effects. After several minutes, a bell rang which indicated a changement de décor by means of a crank-operated mechanism that rotated the auditorium.10
These early mechanical viewing devices are generally considered as important predecessors of moving pictures. But even more important in this context is that these apparatuses caused a crucial shift in modern viewing conditions, in particular with regard to the way of seeing the landscape in the twentieth century. Since the Renaissance, artists had used linear perspective to structure space and landscape. According to Una Chaudhuri, the spectator of perspectival landscapes is formally an outsider, and this position is ‘considerably alleviated by the concomitant projection of passivity on the world represented’ (Fuchs & Chaudhuri 2002: 19). The thrilling effects achieved by perspective depended, according to this same author, upon the distance and fixed position of the onlooker and, further, upon denying both of these. This fixed and detached rela- tion between the viewer and the image became the dominant disposition of theatre and film. Moreover, perspective turned out to be the theatre’s fundamental spatial disposition. Framed by the manteau of the theatrical stage, the staged scene is always directed/oriented towards a central ‘perfect’ – and thus fixed – viewing position.
Modern culture, however, established with its nineteenth-century viewing devices other, more fragmented ways of viewing and experiencing visual attractions. The panorama and diorama are good examples here, as they seem to be the direct inspiration for both Stein’s conception of the landscape play and d’Haeseleer’s installations. The panorama was a circular landscape painting displayed on the inside walls of a rotunda. Spectators could wander around on a central platform to contemplate the spectacular surrounding environment. Different from central-perspective painting, the source of perception in panoramas was not the single-eyed fixed gaze but the entire body that projected the perceiver into the landscape. From that position, the imagination of the viewer was free to construct the image world from multiple perspectives.
What inspired Gertrude Stein, however, was not only the panorama’s imaginative power and free embodied perception but also its potential to encourage a new way of looking at landscapes as well as a new relationship of the embodied self to the environment (Stein 1998a). After all, the panorama was, among other contemporary spectacles, a performative landscape that emphasized the mechanics by which the illusion was created. As a viewer of the panorama, one becomes aware of the process of illusion, which is an aspect of attraction that constitutes the thrill of the experience.
Scripted Emotions can also be understood in the frame of this modern dialectic between fascination (illusion) and deconstruction, distance and proximity, inside and outside, first- and second-order representation.11 Moreover, this double logic is reminiscent of meta-pictures’ dialectical disposition. Positioned behind the binoculars, the spectator again becomes a voyeur, ‘scripted’ as a Peeping Tom. This voyeuristic role of the viewer is also made explicit in the set-up of the binoculars, becoming a tableau itself worth looking at. Queuing visitors in turn observe the peering spectator. The act of looking is thus once more reframed on a meta-level: the image of people looking at people looking at people evokes an ‘interactive’ dialogue between the observer and the nested image in this self-referential picture. As a matter of fact, this ‘dialogue’ or the relation between the observer and the observed is the actual subject of this work, turning the entirety of this installation into a meta-picture. Consequently, the self-referential character of Scripted Emotions serves a double function. It not only offers a reflection on vision itself, it also generates a self-awareness on the side of the beholder who needs to negotiate a new relationship to the depicted environment. The reflective character of a so-called ‘multistable’ meta-picture, then, has as much to do with the observer as with the meta-picture itself. It is for this reason that Mitchell calls the multistable image ‘a device for educing self-knowledge, a kind of mirror for the beholder’ (1994: 48).
Fig. 3 Scripted Emotions © Kristof Persoons – http://www.perreonline.be.
Remembering the Landscape
The interactive video environment of Scripted Emotions was later implemented in ERASE- E(X), a relay-performance of Joji Inc, selected for the Festival d’Avignon 2008. For this chain performance, Johanne Saunier invited several choreographers and artists, including Kurt d’Haeseleer, to erase and (re)create the dance phrase of the previous. Inspired by Erased De Kooning Drawing (1953), a painting of Robert Rauschenberg in which the American pop artist erased a drawing of Willem De Kooning, a similar method developed the choreography. In ERASE-E(X), the act of erasing is not so much a negation but rather a rewriting in which each artist is challenged to set up a dialogue with the universe of his/her predecessor. This seemingly destructive act is of course a conceptual one, which highlights the main issues of postmodern art by questioning the position of art and the artist, the problem of authorship, inter-referentiality and legibility. Translated to the domain of dance and performance art, these issues are even more precarious because of its ephemeral ontological status and the absence of a universal notation system. The performance thus builds on an existing discourse on post-structural semantics, based on the ability of the observer to understand the complexity of narrative layers and references as a coherent and consistent event.
In his detailed analyses of the first three instalments of this choreography, Johan Callens neatly unravels the multiple references underlying ERASE-E(X). First in line, the Wooster Group was asked to rework a dance phrase of Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker. This interpretation, performed by Saunier, returned to de Keersmaeker only to be re- erased again. In a third phase, Isabelle Soupaert directed Saunier, this time in a duet with the male dancer Charles François. Callens extensively discusses Jean-Luc Godard’s canonical Le Mépris (1963) as a central motif in the first three instalments of the performance. This theme was established by the Wooster Group, who recycled the soundtrack and gestural vocabulary of the opening scene of this film. Featuring the Austrian director Fritz Lang in the role of a movie director, this making-of movie already functions as a meta-image, picturing the act of filmmaking in reference to the existing cultural canon.12 Taking the soundtrack of the first scene as a starting point of the performance, ERASE-E(X) irrevocably takes along the gender issues of that particular scene in which a naked Brigitte Bardot invites her partner to admire her body. In his article, Callens points out how ‘the relevance of Le Mépris for ERASE-E(X) extends to the movie’s autobiographical subtext, which turns both works into private commemorations, as well as gender explorations and self-conscious historicizations of their medium, all the way up to the present’ (2007: 95-97). The performance is thus not only a self- conscious reflection on ‘the permanence and belatedness of art’, it also echoes on a narrative level the classic topos of relational issues through the creative re-enactment or citation of the cultural canon (ibid. 99).
D’Haeseleer was the fourth in a row to erase and (re)create the performance. Parallel to Godard’s soundtrack in the first instalment, d’Haeseleer started his part with the soundtrack of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001), a film bearing innumerable references to Le Mépris and other movies. Godard’s film ends with a car crash and the death of Emilia played by Brigitte Bardot. D’Haeseleer staged Saunier as a Bardot after the crash, mirroring the beginning of Mulholland Drive. The dancer slowly crawled along the scene. Her fractured movements were registered by a surveillance camera scanning the theatrical space and projected on a screen above her. When she entered a specific zone before the camera, she apparently seemed to activate the ‘mental images’ of the performance. In reaction to her movements, fragments of dance phrases from the previous instalments were projected as flashbacks behind her. D’Haeseleer reframed these fragments in one video environment – the same software environment he had used for Scripted Emotions. The landscape was thus used as a frame to take together and reposition all the different instalments into one single cinematographic space. This projected landscape was steered live by a technician, as if he scanned the panorama with a pair of binoculars. Containing multiple images of a dancing Saunier at different moments in the performance, the landscape reflects the mental pictures of the performer wandering through that scenery. Moreover, it appeared as if she was able to interact with these images of ‘her’ lost memory. In the act of remembering her past identity, she mirrors at the same time the amnesia of Rita, the protagonist in Mulholland Drive.
Summarizing, we can state that d’Haeseleer’s episode of ERASE-E(X) contains all the discussed characteristics of his work in a performative context. By introducing his own cinematographic medium on the theatrical scene, he inevitably installs the existence of a parallel world, through an embedment of a cinematographic environment en abyme. The screen opens up to a landscape containing all the performative repetitions of the ‘same’ but erased dance phrase. On a first level of this mise en abyme, the screen functions as a mirror or window that reflects the infinite repetitions of the performance’s memory. On a second, meta-level, it pictures the impossibility of a comprehensive remembrance and, by extension, a ‘perfect’ re-enactment. The interaction of the actress with her projected ‘mental images’ reflects at the same time the remember- ing/reconfiguring act of the witnessing audience. The use of the related soundtrack, for instance, immediately triggers the audience’s ‘cultural memory’ and invites the viewers to construct meaning and ‘fill in the gaps’ between a multitude of references and (personal) recollections. In this respect the construction of meaning parallels both on a textual and visual level postmodernist thought, which itself can be considered a mise en abyme or an endless web of cross-references. In deconstructive literary criticism, mise en abyme is used as a term to denote the intertextual nature of language and its incapacity to refer to reality. Signification in this postmodern paradigm is understood as a mise en abyme of signifiers, where authorship and spectatorship are merely rhetorical/ grammatical constructs – every signified is nothing but another signifier, literality is but another trope, depth a play of surfaces. Poststructuralist Jean Baudrillard coined the term ‘simulacrum’ to postulate this postmodern problem of the original. In our contemporary society saturated with images, the status of that image (representation) in relation to an external reality has become blurred. To characterize this hybrid ontology of reality, Baudrillard polemically stated that reality seems to have disappeared behind the
multitude of copies, simulations: images, or models without origin or reality; a hyper- reality (Baudrillard 1981).
However, to reduce the work of d’Haeseleer to the paradigm of ‘hyperreality’ would be wide of the mark. Although his post-apocalyptic universe definitely relates to post- modern aesthetic theory, his digital landscapes are too material (too human) in nature to be characterized as simulacra. The depicted spaces are not empty and infinite, as the signs of Baudrillard are, but on the contrary are layered and complex. In that sense they can be considered as hybrid – a denominator that entirely connects to the register of mutating media. To characterize d’Haeseleer’s surroundings as ‘hybrid’ is an effective way to overcome the unproductive distinction between physical space and the intangi- ble flows of informational space.13 Instead, d’Haeseleer’s digital landscapes seem to visualize, almost materialize, the layered character of postmodern space, in which parallel worlds are embedded and interwoven within each other. The human body appears to be the go-between then, hovering around in parallel worlds spanned by electronic networks. This complex play between material ‘spaces of place’ and immaterial ‘spaces of flow’ (Castells 2000: 409) is exactly the scope of his most recent performance (at the time of writing), which exemplifies our concluding remarks. In Je Connais Des Gens Qui Sont Morts (2009), d’Haeseleer and Bérengère Bodin again perform a landscape, this time populated by inflatable objects and puppets that successively swell up and deflate again. Based on Zygmunt Bauman’s La Vie Liquide, the theme of a society that is entirely driven by flexibility and change recurs. The manipulated objects and floating video images form the background for a strange, alienating courtship dance. D’Haeseleer’s visual poetics of morphing adds again to the material, almost organic, quality of these sceneries, turning his digital landscapes into pictorial hybrid surroundings. Slowly deforming figures emerge as dancers. The empty membranes are wrenched in anatomically impossible positions. In the end, two corporeal bodies of the performers are determined to endure in the swiftly transforming digital landscape.
Nele Wynants is a junior researcher at the University of Antwerp (film and the- atre studies). She studied Art History (performance and media arts) at the Uni- versity of Ghent and the Université Paris X, and scenography at the Royal Acad- emy of Fine Arts in Antwerp.
Since October 2008, she has been a fellow of the Research Foundation – Flan- ders (FWO), conducting her PhD on visual narratives in immersive performance and installation art.
‘Archaic Smile ‘ by Bart Rutten (curator Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam) for Move- catalogus 2009
The opening sequence before the credits for Kurt d’Haeseleer’s Archaic Smile is a strong, decisive first chapter. From a dense, seemingly breathing or heart-pumping blur in a broad swathe of green and red – covered by a vein-like structure – images emerge of a group of contemporary people waiting in a late nineteenth century hall that may be a factory or a train station. They are waiting to depart. The next shot shows other people, closer to the camera, who are being filmed in reverse. They then move backwards to join the crowd. The soundtrack swells, as if to announce that something big is about to happen. Then the title appears in reverse, which suggests that it was set up, not for the real-life viewer, but to be read by the audience, this crowd, in the film. It seems that they need to be informed about what it is they are waiting for. These are then, the true spectators, waiting to be allowed to enter the scene. As the film unfolds, we find ourselves watching other people watching a representation of history.
The film evolves, showing vague images of soldiers battling; explosions and smoke appear through the biomorphic layer of video graphics. The next episodes also show images of spectators in the stands of an amphitheatre, watching a show. Images of knights on horses, the eighteenth century military and Roman soldiers pass by, and these different epochs blend together in an impressionistic video mix. Sometimes a transparent layer is predominant in the foreground, like a dense cloud, allowing you to grasp only impressions of movements and armour. The firing of a gun and its heavy smoke create spectacular video graphics, which foregrounds the video medium itself. In other fragments the layer disappears completely and we have a clear view of what is meant to be a historic sight: as in the closing scene, for instance, where we have an uninterrupted view of the impressive tower of a medieval castle. But then the tower starts to move, and it is as if you are watching a digital intervention in reality. This assures you the viewer and the spectator in the film that all you have been watching, is an image that is possibly fake.
What is a historic image? Kurt d’Haeseleer explores this question by focusing here on the phenomenon reenactments. These are happenings in which people dress up in historic costumes and meet to re-enact historic battles. These events date back to antiquity, when armies fought fake battles to entertain the ruling classes. In the nineteenth century, especially in the United States, amateurs started to execute such reenactments, re-fighting the War of Independence every year as an act of commemoration. In recent decades reenactments of such diverse subject matter as the Roman Empire and the Second World War have grown enormously popular, and the phenomenon has spread across Europe. ‘Reenactors’try to recreate as accurately as possible notable moments from the past. It is like a magical undertaking, an attempt to travel back in time to relive bygone events. It is a desire to experience history as an adventure, and to create a parallel universe that seems far away from the actual time and place in which the participants live. Along came the historic theme park, where people can stroll around in a park filled with newly built historical houses, and staff walking around in costumes to match. These parks and reenactments function in contemporary society as ‘live representations’, as a supplement to the more familiar representations on film and television.
What is interesting in d’Haeseleer’s portrayal of the reenactments is its focus on the double standard of such representation, of live versus cinematic representation. He focuses on the cracks in representations. Every sense of magic disappears when a modern house is visible from behind, a Roman soldier holds a microphone in his hand, or when a figure dressed up as a maid supporting an army takes a photo camera out of her pocket and starts photographing the scene of which she is also part. Cameras appear throughout the whole film. Spectators and participants alike seem all to believe strongly in capturing this staged, fake reality by photographic or cinematic means. This is the moment when the film Archaic Smile is no longer part of the cinematic tradition of masking and faking, and harsh documentary reality steps in. The subject changes from history to people dealing with imagery of the past. This mirrors our desire to comprehend history, by transferring it to imagery we are able to understand, by cinematic means that we are able to control.
Archaic Smile confronts us with the question, as to what a contemporary representation of history is based on. Is its definition changing? Are history books being replaced by Hollywood, which has more or less gained a monopoly on visualizing history? These reenactments are live representations of historic episodes. By filming them, d’Haeseleer places them back in the cinematic tradition. The soundtrack of Archaic Smile uses and remixes a theme from a dramatic film score, appealing to our memories of historical dramas we have seen already. We are used to watching people dressed in historical costumes, presenting an interpretation of the past, in which fact and fiction coexist, framed by a soundtrack.
But on a deeper level you could say that the film deals with human understanding of the image itself. You could even say that human understanding and experience of images are presented quite literally. The viewer is tempted to compare the video’s graphic layer with a human membrane. The images look like a microbiological image, as if you are watching the human brain itself, in extreme close up: or, more specifically, the spot where visibility is activated, the place where we experience the outer world thanks to complex synaptic processes. The constant movement of this vein-like layer suggests the rhythm of a living substance. The soundtrack also suggests this reference to a membrane, for the broken pace of the rippling beats creates a living continuum. This is the deepest possible close-up of an image.
Besides the video graphics’ literal reference there is a more powerful remark to make regarding how they are used. Kurt d’Haeseleer is well known for his extreme video manipulations. He created several works in which the footage is treated to heavy graphic intervention. This style is widely appreciated in the art world and beyond. He has collaborated with artists from theatre, dance and music, and has created sets for live cinema and VJ-ing. He has a highly personal style, and uses graphic effects that are not available in standard video editing or processing software. They are, in a way, ‘hand-made’. In this regard, his approach reflects his inquiry into the authenticity of an image.
His manipulations deconstruct one basic aspect of the digital video image. They allow him to combine and exchange pixels from different frames. D’Haeseleer manipulates images by forcing them to react to the parameters of other images. With this approach, he can only partly foresee how the image will appear. “It is like developing analogue photographs, where it is always a surprise to see the result” he explains. By relying on this process-based strategy, he is able to incorporate chance and keep the imagery ‘alive’.
But this also means that information from different moments in recorded time interchange on a microscopic level. Such treatment of video recordings undermines our reception of time and thereby our reception of history, as we are used to perceiving it through the cinematic medium. What we are watching is the process of watching an image of history itself, from dazzling perspectives.