Published on THE THING and in New York Arts.

Review: 2001 Biennale de Lyon : CONNIVENCE

June 23rd to September 23rd, 2001
Joseph Nechvatal

This year the Lyon Biennale is organized and presented under the parapluie designation of "Connivence". Connivence in English roughly means ‘complicity’; an intuitive collusion based on unspoken communications. As such, where the show was meritorious, for me, is exactly where it fails by its own terms. Its limited success is to be found precisely in the rupture located here, and not in any idealized complicity. A rupture (or biafurcation if you prefer) which has occurred between the capture technology of the 20th Century (straight photography and video) and the far-more elastic and participatory technology of the computer. This technological rupture is also evidenced with the emerging of a new generation of French art stars, specifically Mathieu Briand and the two person collaborative team called ‘Kolkoz’ (Samuel Boutruche and Benjamin Moreau) - as usured in by the young curatorial intellect of Laurence Dreyfus.

Thierry Prat and Thierry Raspail, the regular curatorial team responsible for the Lyon Biennales this time, acting on their good hopes for a natural connivence/complicity, delegated their curatorial taste to seven other curators who shaped seven domains of art. The idea was that there would be a connivence/complicity struck up between the Thierrys and this team and that a connivence/complicity would also emerge between the domains and specific works presented. At least the second part of this hope was assuredly not realized in my view and this non-realization ultimately signifies, perhaps, the long-awaited fatal rupture between the 20th and the 21st Centuries.

Somewhat surprisingly, this technological biafurcation between the capture technologies of photo and video and the virtual technologies does achieve some sort of complicity (or complot) with the earlier technology of painting – although there were but two painters in the show. And I suspect that this complicity was noticed as significant by the two Thierrys, as the first work that one encounters on entering the Musee d’Art contemporain (where the bulk of the show is held this year) is a painting - painted rather traditionally - of a Nintendo game and its joystick by Miltos Manetas. This placement seemed to privilege the computer game area of Laurence Dreyfus and her theme of virtual action. However, other paintings in the show, those by Gerwald Rockenschaub, looked stronger than Manetas’s with their hard-edge metallic geometric renderings of seemingly computer scenes or creatures. They pleasingly reminded me a bit of the metal-based paintings of Blinky Palermo. Rockenschaub’s paintings integrated themselves very well into the main computer game domain, particularly complimenting the rather painterly Atari-Noise (Arcangel Constantini) electronic diptych.

This art/arcade room also housed the auspicious new work of Mel Chin "The Knowmad Confederacy, Knowmad"; a drive-through immersive work which was made up from the ornament found on nomadic carpets. It was visually rich and a pleasure to experience with a fine sound track which pushed one’s adrenaline along nicely. I also fully enjoyed ponging disgusting insults in three languages with the conceptually tight and beautifully executed work of Panoplie (Bruno Samper) called "Eurogame". One literally plays the old computer game Pong to one’s best ability against the computer - but the game is now fashioned out as an insult exchange venture. The audio-visual insults start flying back and forth at a furious rate the better one plays as the words transform in real time. As such, it offered me a rather large perverse pleasure. Also exemplary was the work of Space Invader arcade, given its mixture of Space Invader (the game) tropes with unexpected street invasions. Also, the nearby Tobias Bernstrup’s immersive envirenment called " Potsdamer platz, the Unreal Edit" (which was built with the Unreal software, so well loved for its luminious qualities) impressed and helped pave the way for the victorious achievement of the electronic-assisted works of Mathieu Briand. Indeed the truly inventive achievement here was that of Briand - even while I can identify connecting links between much of what can be found in Frank Popper’s seminal book from 1975 called "Art-Action and Participation" and Jack Burnham's book from 1968 "Beyond Modem Sculpture" – books which stressed the cybernetic participatory loop encountered here.

Basically, Briand takes participatory principles found in virtual environments (VEs – or that which is better know as VR (virtual reality) and externalises them. For example, his clearly mature participatory interactive 360° environment called "SYS/*016.JEX*02/1SE6FX/360°" manifests the principle of what I have been calling the ‘viractual’ brilliantly. The viractual is the space of connection between the computed virtual and the uncomputed corporeal world which here merge. This space can be further inscribed as the viractual span of liminality, which according to the anthropologist Arnold van Gennep (based on his anthropological studies of social rites of passage) is the condition of being on a threshold between spaces. This term (concept) of the viractual (and viractuality) is the significant connivence/complicity experienced in the show - a connivence/complicity helpful in defining the third fused inter-spatiality in which we increasingly live today as forged from the meeting of the virtual and the actual - a concept close to what the military call "augmented reality". Augmented reality is the use of transparent displays worn as see-through glasses on which computer data is projected and layered. Such an application is called in the military a heads up display (HUD), which is a display device which permits users to see computer graphics superimposed on their view of the world.

This drift towards the viractual is evidenced with both the aforementioned trampoline-based immersive piece "SYS/*016.JEX*02/1SE6FX/360°" and his immersive head-mounted display (HMD) piece called "SYS/*017.ReE.06/PIG-EqN/5*" which I later encountered at Les Subsistances (where the show continues). With "SYS/*016.JEX*02/1SE6FX/360°" the immersant starts hoping around on a full-scale trampoline while being scanned by 75 input points. This data is then displayed on panaramic screens which encircle one at lagging speeds. The effect is both of existing inside a cubist painting and of starring in the movie "The Matrix".

Clearly also with his other piece "SYS/*017.ReE.06/PIG-EqN/5*" Briand again takes occurrences heretofore experienced only inside of virtual environments and brings them out into the actual world – viractualizing them (or I should say us). This same viractualizing principle is brilliantly utilised by Kolkoz’s inter-connectivity piece "Half Life". "Half Life" adheres closely to the video game format while externalizing it outward – and therein establishes its brilliance. "Half Life" is built by hacking the Half Life shoot-em-up game - what I understand to be the offspring of Doom. But the artists have bit-mapped into the VE the entire installation of the art found at the Musee d’Art contemporain. The homicide is now taking place at the Lyon Biennale and the killing spree takes part among the works (some get soiled with digital blood!) as three avatars (bit-mapped with the faces of the artists) dual it out. It is art as blood-bath and as such serves far better as a metaphor of the entire show than connivence does. Yes, this show is a killing off of the boring, of the slow to adapt, and of the driveling aesthetic rut where artistic endeavors are ultimately subsumed by some sort of naturalist morass, even while one might regret its lack of quixotic subtlety. The final splendid viractual touch took place when the artists hand-formed the digital weapons and digital first-aid kits found inside the game and placed them around the actual gallery space. Excellent!

To be sure this work kills off a large amount of semi-turgid material found here. Surprisingly, an accomplishment that did survive the carnage well was the very low-tech room installation by Frédéric Le Junter – saved perhaps by its immersive grandeur mixed with its humble poetic charm (reminiscent of the work of Jon Kessler). Also left standing tall was the complex multigenerational/multimedia exhibition by François Pain, Félix Guattari, and Guattari’s spiritual father, François Tosquelles. Its rich historical, political and philosophical underpinnings withstood all attack, even while being hermetic to those unaware of the cultural references. It withstood the gamer’s attack exactly by outflanking it in that Guattari’s final book "Chaosmosis : an ethico-aesthetic paradigm" contains an admirable basis on which to theorize the arrival of just such virtual-assisted art into the main stream. Guattari’s significant contribution to the contexualization of "Half Life" into the artworld is to be found in Chaosmosis’s notion of "assemblage" - assemblage as the product of multiple flows from a number of different media which provides various levels of declaration and content for one another through their inter-connectivity. Media difference is considered at the level of the virtual and this encourages accumulative developments and heterophony (virtual lines of flight). I guess the basic idea of the book is that you can't discover new and mutant lands until you are willing to lose sight of the shore.

But back to the foremost work, that of Briand. With "SYS/*017.ReE.06/PIG-EqN/5*" Briand befuddles a squad of 3 or 4 participating immersants who are each outfitted with an immersive head-mounted display. Everyone sees the extensive actual space through the eye of a video camera mounted on top of their HMD - but also they see (sometimes) through the HMD that other spectators are wearing. The input is transposed involuntarily. This is close to what can be experienced in VR projects where aspects of view-switching are common. And like in a successful VE we experience here an extending of conscious awareness through a non-linear series of glances which criss-cross.

But finally, the diverse artists which may be placed under the rubric ‘digitally-assisted’ which I discovered at the 2001 Biennale de Lyon perhaps share only one thing in common - they all involve themselves in issues and technical practices which run parallel to, or feed into, the epistemological transformations generated by digital technologies and cyber culture. It is neither surprising nor coincidental that a paradigmatic epistemological change for art would follow such a development.

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