The Art of ~scaping
Echoes for Anouk De Clercq
voor A-prior Magazine # 16 (February 2008)
Creating art with the environment has a long tradition. Consider the land art of Robert Smithson and Nancy Holt, the architecture of Gordon Matta-Clark, the monumental sculpture of Richard Serra, or the Körperkonfigurationen by VALIE EXPORT. Consider the music of John Cage, or the choreography of Trisha Brown. Consider the sound and light environments of LaMonte Young and Marian Zazeela.
It is not so difficult anymore to see a place for Anouk De Clercq in that same distinct tradition. In her recent work, she recreated environments (Kernwasser Wunderland, 2004, inspired by what is left of the nuclear power plants at Kalkar and Chernobyl), set existing architecture in motion (Building, 2003, an interpretation of the Brugges Concert Hall, and Petit Palais, 2002, after the edifice of the same name in Paris), planned monumental works (Pole, 2007, for the Netwerk Art Centre in Aalst, and Tube, 2006, for the canal zone in Izegem), joined forces with an architectural duo for the renovation of the Brussels Film Museum and completed work that explicitly has to be experienced in a spatial environment (Pang, 2005). For her newest work, Echo (2008), Anouk De Clercq has been inspired by the surroundings of the Dhondt-Dhaenens Museum (MDD), where the work will be presented, and where images and sounds will demand a greater presence in the space.
In addition to her being a video artist, media artist and installation artist, it may be productive also to consider De Clercq as a landscape artist. Not only does she use images as imaginary landscapes, but increasingly, also takes up sound in the form of audio landscapes (the former still slips through the rules of art as apparently evident, while the latter is awarded a place in the art of the soundscape), for however abstract it may seem—and this is equally true for her images—she usually starts out with very concrete sounds.
The key to experiencing this work lies in dialogue. It is art that transcends reading to foreground interpretation, translation and transformation. Anouk De Clercq paves the way for an ever-greater role for listening as a complement to looking. Visual images and sounds are important in creating an environment. Reflections and echoes are essential to making it complete. This means that, in her work, there exist equally important roles for the artist(s) (for De Clercq seldom works alone) and for the viewer(s). By way of echoes, what follows are a number of beginnings for a better experience of the environmental art of Anouk De Clercq.
You can stare at a landscape for as long as you like, but it always remains just an image, until you step into it. To experience a landscape, you have to move around inside it. Your senses make up part of your surroundings. More than an image, landscape is a space, an experience.
The idea of a viewer stepping into an image in the same way that a hiker steps into a landscape is not really new. It was inherent to 19th-century panoramas, with their 360° span, for which special houses were almost always built, a room of their own, as it were, as a framework into which people could step. Much of the interactive art of the digital era strives to achieve this immersive effect. In cinema as well—not insignificant to a good understanding of Anouk De Clercq’s art—various examples are to be found of viewers wanting to step into the picture. I think of Buster Keaton in Sherlock Jr., or Michel-Ange, one of the soldiers in Godard’s Les Carabiniers, who was sent out into the world to conquer it, then returned home with a suitcase full of images, filled with pieces of landscape, fragments from his meanderings. In the cinema, when Michel-Ange looks at a film, he cannot stop himself from walking up to the screen in order to look over the edge of the bathtub, to see more of the naked woman sitting in it.
There are also examples of people stepping out of the picture, such as Jean Borlin in René Clair’s Entr’Acte, who leaps right through the word fin—the end—thus indicating that the film is not over, that there are images after the last image, that there is still space beyond the space of the film on the screen, that this image is in between the one space and the other, that a film is ever only about an in-between space. How could it be otherwise for a film that is named after the interlude, the entr’acte between one act and the next?
Situations such as these show how difficult it is to enter an image. Or how easy; you simply have to move, put your body in there, to move in that in-between space and connect those different points, places, and acts with one another. Think of an exhibition, of the way you step from one work to the next. In the same way, in Paris in the 1920s, the surrealists stepped from one cinema into the next: this is how to approach the work of Anouk De Clercq, work that is seldom projected as a film, from beginning to end, but usually functions as an installation, in loops. You drop into it at the most unpredictable moments. Sometimes you see it from the middle to the end, and from there to the beginning, sometimes from the beginning to the end, sometimes from the end to the beginning, by-passing the middle. Or, as happens in her most recent work, since Pang, you experience it with no beginning, middle or end.
To experience an image, therefore, you have to take action, put your mark on it, leave your footprints behind. You have to approach it as an environment, as part of an environment, as part of a larger whole. Think of Narcissus, who fell in love with an image without ever realizing that the face in the surface of the water was a reflection of himself. Marshall McLuhan used the myth of Narcissus as a metaphor for the anaesthesia of the ever-mobile, yet totally immobilized media user. He was speaking of the paralysis that is so difficult to dispel, about the quasi-unmoving Narcissus who formed a closed system with his own reflection. The nymph, Echo, who repeats the words of Narcissus in order to gain his attention and favour, fails to turn his head. The closed system between Narcissus and his image, the fact that he has lost all connection to his environment, signals his inevitable ruin. Each time Narcissus leans his head forward to kiss the image before him, it disappears in the ripples of the water’s surface. Each time he wishes to touch the object of his desire, it is no longer there. It changes into something else, vanishes into the surroundings. Narcissus can look, but he cannot touch. His problem is that he can never accept that he is looking at an image, a reflection that is transformed whenever he reaches out for it.
Yet if we are to understand an image, we must intervene. You have to step into it and change it, adapt it to your presence. You have to stand on it, to understand an image. This becomes abundantly clear in Christian Marclay’s 1992 installation, Echo and Narcissus. Marclay’s interpretation of the myth is comprised of a floor, covered in a carpet of CDs—a tactile combination of duplicated sound and image. Just as the nymph, Echo, repeats the words of Narcissus, the purpose of a CD is always to repeat the same sounds. Just as the handsome youth was mesmerized by his own reflection, the viewer is fascinated by his own image in the sparkling disks beneath his feet. This work, which the viewer appropriates, is a tangible one, not so much because of the reflection of each visitor in the shining floor, but because there is no other way to properly see the work than to stand on it. This work is an environment, a space, and no one can get around that. By treading on the work (which must inevitably happen), each visitor leaves his or her mark: scratches on the plastic of the CDs.
Listen to Anouk De Clercq’s work as if you are listening to the work of a sound artist, rather than that of a filmmaker. Experience the work as that of an environmental artist, in other words, that of a media artist in Marshal McLuhan’s sense of an artist who uses (her) media as environment, as an inseparable expansion of the self, in the way that Christian Marclay—or better yet, John Cage—makes music with the environment. Make her art your own and practice the art of listening. As you listen, make your own creation. Make yourself a sound artist.
Remember that a good sound artist above all has to be a good listener, someone who understands that listening is a task of interpreting, translating, and consequently arranging and appropriating, someone who knows what it means to be involved, to engage oneself and to write into the work, who has no trepidation about becoming part of it, or inversely, about letting the work become part of himself, herself. This makes many a sound artist also a sampling artist, one who works with the work of others and makes himself a part of the work of art, in the process.
(Incidentally, though not insignificantly, Marclay’s Echo and Narcissus was a remix of an earlier work. Marclay is a sampling artist, as is Anouk De Clercq. We must not forget that. Such artists set to work with very concrete pieces of reality, with existing images, sounds and ideas, in order to make something new. In 1989, for Footsteps, Marclay covered a floor with vinyl records, 1500 in all, on which he had recorded the sounds of his own footsteps, blended with those of a tap dancer. After the exhibition, the records were neatly packed and sold. They were scratched and covered in dust, but most of all, they were unique. There were no two examples with an identical mix of footsteps, tap dancing and scratches—all thanks to the contributions of the visitors, the work’s viewers and listeners.)
This way, the viewer, together with the artist, stands with one foot in the world of sound and the other in the visual world, one foot in a real world and one in an ideal world; and above those feet, his or her head is right in the middle. For it is in that generous space between the feet and the mind, that things take on form, meaning and life.
Listening—by moving—helps us break away from text as a linear phenomenon, from the obligation and the desire. More than reading, listening is a form of interpretation, of translation. You only extricate yourself from the user’s instruction manual for your medium (computer, camera, piano…), from that which one presumes must be done with it, by stepping into it. You are only freed from the linear quality of a text (from the coercion, from what has to be) and allowed a connection to the omni-directionality of the environment (of potential, of what is possible) by wandering around in it, by working open the closed circuit, by beginning from zero each and every time.
This is like looking with your eyes closed, in the way that the third important protagonist in the myth of Echo and Narcissus does: Teiresias, the blind prophet. He has to answer Narcissus’s mother’s question: will her son live a long life? He is, in other words, not expected to look at what is, at that moment, but what is to be; not the concrete, but the potential. Teiresias is the true artist in this narrative, the one whose fate lies in the hands of the listener. As befits an artist, he does not give one answer, but several. Or to be more precise, he offers a single answer that can be read in many ways, one that goes in different directions. Narcissus, as the answer goes, will continue to live as long as he avoids the confrontation with himself. It is an enigmatic answer. It is almost computer language: ‘If x, then y’; coded language, not to be understood so much as to be done.
It is difficult to see without looking, but it is not impossible. I have to think of the blind critic of Nouvelle Vague, the film by Jean-Luc Godard, whose task parallels that of the visionary cinematographer: to internalize, interpret and arrange something, and to then give it back. I have to think of Beethoven, as he composed his last symphony: deaf, alone in his inner world. If the best seer is blind, is the best listener deaf? Is the most attentive reader illiterate?
One cannot read everything in a single work, nor can one express everything in a single work. The work always gives more and less than we can experience. As the mistake of Narcissus makes clear, one cannot simply accept everything from any given work. Each work is a process, certainly when, like Anouk De Clercq, you work with a computer—a processor.
In the same way that the medium was for McLuhan, for Anouk De Clercq, the computer is a space in which to imagine, to fantasize. The images and the sounds generated by it continue to form new spaces. None of those spaces stand on their own. There is always a space that came before it and a space that will follow. There is the context in which you experience them. There are the reasons that bring you to see and hear them. There is the sound that surrounds them. All this means that these spaces must be read within an environment, or indeed, that they are no longer read, but have to be imagined. Strictly speaking, it means giving up reading and learning to see (like the blind), learning to listen (like the deaf) anew. It means stepping out of the presentation and into the interpretation.
Imagine, then, to see and make visible. Look, with your eyes closed, like the blind visionaries, as when you nearly close your eyes in order to see more sharply, or when you leap into a pool with your eyes and mouth squeezed shut and your fingers pinching your nose. This is when things are not only visible, but also tangible. It is what you do when you are one with the world, when you give yourself over to the world. For a moment, you shut yourself off from the world in order to become a part of it. You close your eyes in order to allow the images to penetrate. And you open your eyes again in order to see the difference, to see what has been altered.
Here, you do not wait for a happy ending, as you do in a cinema, but you move in an open-ended, endless repetition, like a recording that you keep putting on, to listen to again and again. This way you look at a landscape: without beginning or end. This way, a hyper-image is formed, with a hyper- (happy) ending, an image that gets even better when it disappears, when you are inside it and it is therefore no longer an image, but a reality that enfolds you. Go back to the image before the image and end up with the image after the image. Reverberating, this is how the echo works.
The rhythm of De Clercq’s work offers space for interpretation. It compels us to think, to talk, to react and to engage. It presents situations that we can feel, experience. It forms the viewer and is formed by the viewer. It subjectivizes and becomes subjectivized (as in Rimbaud’s ‘Je est un autre’; Flaubert’s ‘Bovary, c’est moi’). It changes the viewer, and undoubtedly also the artist (Anouk, c’est nous). Your task as a viewer/listener/visitor is to lend your ear. The echo is us.
To say that these spaces are empty, therefore, is not only—this much is now obvious—to fail to take account of the sound. It is not taking account of the environment, because the viewer in front of the screen is always sitting inside it. As a viewer, you share the artist’s space. You fill these spaces. They are not empty. There is always more than what you see. There is more around the space than there is in it. Anouk De Clercq calls it, “a concentrated presence of very little.” This means that these are immersive spaces. They are spaces that absorb, spaces that are shared, and they are certainly not aloof or anonymous spaces. These are spaces that are filled through and through with personality.
This is work in which it is easy to move around. “That is why,” says Anouk De Clercq, “as little as possible must happen in that space, so as many people as possible can fit in it.” This is emptiness, but an emptiness that is very well filled, like John Cage’s acoustic spaces.
Last echo. Let yourself be taken up into the environment in order to let it go. Learn to adapt the environment, arrange it and make it your own, in order to toss it back. Affirm your presence there in order to disappear inside. Give yourself over to the Sharawadji, that mundanely exotic sound experience and source of inspiration for this artist. De Clercq’s website includes the following quotation from Sonic Experience, a book by Jean-François Augoyard and Henry Torgue:
The Sharawadji effect is an æsthetic effect characterized by a sensation of plenitude sometimes created by the contemplation of a complex soundscape whose beauty is inexplicable. This exotic term, introduced to Europe in the seventeenth century by travellers who learned it in China, designates the beauty that arises without the listener perceiving the order or economy of the object in question.
The Sharawadji effect takes one by surprise and will carry the listener elsewhere, beyond strict representation and out of context. In this brutal confusion, the senses get lost. A beautiful Sharawadji plays with the rules of composition, manipulates them, and awakens a feeling of pleasure through perceptual confusion. Whether in a dream-like or anxious state, we are sometimes completely deaf to the environment. While on a walk or on a journey, however, our spirit can combine availability, attention, and perspicacity, thus becoming receptive to new things, including sonic fantasy.
The beautiful Sharawadji affirms itself in contrast with the banality from which it originates. Sharawadji sounds, as such, belong to everyday life or to known musical registers. They only become Sharawadji by de-contextualization, by a rupture of the senses.
Sharawadji is a game played with the rules of composition, a manipulation, an indescribable beauty that appears in everyday reality. It is a de-contextualizing, an interruption in sensual perception. It is a reality set free from our perceptions, one that carries the listener to that somewhere else, beyond representation, beyond context.
For the good listener, the one who understands, who wants to reach beyond the text, the sound, the environment—the one who wants to interpret—it is enough just to let oneself go, to briefly let himself, herself, be distracted. To let go the environment in order to be one with it.