Testing the space

Juliette Fontaine, catalogue Step to step, Rennes College of arts, 2009.

In many of Thierry Fournier’s interactive installations, space is not so much a site as it is a material. Time and time again, engaging with one of his apparatuses means penetrating a singular if not peculiar audio material. The sound always retains a strong physical presence, it is almost organic, if not erotic (Electric Bodyland, Siren). The visitor’s movement through this space modulates the sound which is then “sculpted” by their presence.

In Step to Step, the visitor does not navigate a musical piece like in Electric Bodyland, nor do they insinuate themselves into the dark matter of troubling, animal sounds that constitute Feedbackroom, once again, however, experience space. Wrapped in darkness, the installation is presents a white block on the ground in front of a life-size video coach giving a step class. This face to face, the symmetry between step and block and stepping class, all of it encourages us to explore the set-up. Setting down your foot or climbing onto the block instantly slow down the music, the coach’s movements and his voice, as if kneaded by clay yet still comprehensible. Yet your control over the image is but a passing impression; as if through a conditioned response, visitors inevitably mimic the screen becoming manipulated by it in turn. It’s no longer clear who is biting and who is being bit—who is aping whom? This is the installation’s humorous side: the impossibility of imitation turns into an absurd and farcical game founded on denial, recalling the singular antics of Buster Keaton. In this way and with intelligent irony, the question who has a hold on whom is constantly replayed through role inversion.

Putting the spectator into play is worth remarking upon because he must cross the space, go to the middle of it, and climb onto a block. In other words, you’re asked to expose yourself. Staying away from the apparatus would deprive you of this particular experience of the work. You have to explore the piece, undergo the slightly upsetting experience of forgoing the reassuring familiarity of privacy,  the security and invisibility of self-effacement, and then enter into an exposed and collective space. Furthermore, each spectator is prompted to encounter their connections with the space, but also the otherness of fellow spectators and the coach, particularly since the latter is a projected image rather than a tangible body. Indeed, the body is focal point of the other’s gaze in this configuration of mutual acknowledgement. There are other ways that the installation raises these questions of the other and the gaze. The block that the spectator stands on is opposite the projection: face-to-face, step-to-step, and, ultimately, peer-to-peer. In his patent absence, the coach looks at the spectator; combining energy with gregariousness, he addresses, signals, and shouts at them. The mirror effect is almost flawless: the coach’s “step” and the one within the space are exactly the same size, and the coach’s distance from the frame is identical to our own. The image could be our own reflection—except that we’re face to face with another.

In Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel writes : “The now is precisely what no longer is when it is.” If we take this sentence to be an enlightened axiom, it becomes a striking aporia that creates a vast field of inquiry. And yet the territory it plots out is ultimately akin to an uninhabited clearing: a rich albeit overgrown garden, but one that, from certain angles, is utterly barren. The initial remark will not yield: the present is unsolvable. Testing present time, or better yet trying to formulate it, is like catching fish in the river with your bare hands. With Step to Step, we experience space-time empirically: it is inconstant, slippery and fundamentally indeterminate, improbable. Rebellious and subversive, space-time forming both immediate and imaginary time in a troubling relationship between the present and the presence of the body. My body is in the present moment, both what does it experience in this moment, what does it perceive through intelligence and feelings—both inevitably intertwined—and what will my body retain of this always already former present? The last aspect of this question underlies the installation as it purposefully submerges its spectators in pure present: standing on a block, their bodies move in front of another projected, moving body. Yet the distance and detachment necessary for this observation only comes from stepping out of the installation. This uncertain concurrence is established in the impossible imitation of the coach’s movement. The present therefore feels like an instant fleeing our feelings’ very present. Sébastien Le Gall’s image becomes the perpetual vanishing point for an unreachable horizon.

Though very different, the installation See you offered an equally unsettling experience of time. Through this installation’s startling temporal shift, our bodies—constant witnesses to the here and now—observed the goings on of the exact same location with a 24 hour delay. However Step to step produces a contradictory impression of present time: it exists only in as much as it rescinds itself. The metaphor which sees the present as the only point on a curve that we can intersect becomes a tangible experience, a brutal reality confirmed by the installation set-up. The weight of the body on the block slows down the image until it almost freezes it, yet it never quite stops : ever-elusive, ever-escaping, we either give up on grasping (at) it or we freeze it and are left powerless to experience and so to describe the standstill.

Juliette Fontaine