But we must not only read, we must play, turning the rules upside down when necessary, experimenting beyond the subject-object dichotomy with a plurality of perspectives on each problem. Kostas Axelos
When Nicolas Bourriaud published his Esthétique relationnelle (1998), the 1990s had already been through a myriad of technological changes: cable-industry pioneer John Malone’s idea of a 500-channel-universe had captivated the world; television networks executives were pondering the possibility of interactive television; IBM had introduced the first smartphone, and by the end of the decade, Darcy DiNucci had outlined a dynamic new vision for the Web. The way people were interacting with content was changing dramatically, and this was transforming social interaction. More and more people wanted to be active participants. It is not a coincidence that the ‘90s was also a time of renewed interest in Fluxus. Their playfulness, the happenings and a Do-It-Yourself aesthetic seemed to mirror the attitude of a society in the midst of fundamental changes. Relational Aesthetics also provided a framework for understanding and evaluating divergent emerging art practices of the ‘90s.
Robert Morris had already observed in Notes on Sculpture (1966) the importance of time and relational interplay between object and spectator saying, “the experience of the work necessarily exists in time.” Two years before, in a book called Vers la pensée planétaire, the Greek-French philosopher Kostas Axelos had put forward his concept of play. According to Axelos, play is part of every aspect of life and a key element to understanding the games (constructs) of the world:
The game is not only one of the fundamental forces, one of the configurations. It pervades them all, it incorporates them: all “are in” the game and all “make” the game, which is not the game of someone or something.
Yes, the game is everywhere and we are all players. In The Right to the City (1968), Sociologist Henri Lefebvre speaks of urban play, as a “creative activity” that needs “information”, “symbolism” and “the imaginary” to thrive. He went further to say that these specific urban needs must by necessity exist in “qualified places of simultaneity and encounters, places where exchange would not go through exchange value, commerce and profit.”
Before talking about the MediaPackBoard (MPB) it is essential to look at the TRUNK© (1996–2001). Created by Valerie LeBlanc and myself, it was an exhibition space located in our 1981 Chevrolet Citation hatchback. It offered a platform for artists to create outside the traditional gallery setting. One of the first events was LeBlanc’s Time of the Day (1996), an installation/performance about time. The gallery toured around Moncton and Sackville for over a week, stopping at other gallery openings, or in random communities and showing on-demand or by appointment. During the openings LeBlanc exchanged conversations about the artwork on hand. In the case of Time of the Day, the trunk featured a lighted display of cheap toy watches and dangling carrots. She also distributed time-off vouchers in denominations of 5, 10 or 15 minutes, suggesting that people could use them to interrupt their daily activities. In fact, all of the exhibitions that were presented in the gallery revolved around le jeu, dialogue and exchange between the artists and their audiences. Before closing its doors, the TRUNK© gallery lived through two other iterations, Gold/Rush in Hamilton, Ontario and Saint John’s, Newfoundland (1999), and TRUNK75 at the Alberta College of Art + Design in Calgary (2001).
While TRUNK© had been a platform to showcase installation and performance, the MPB focused on presenting technology-mediated performance. Without going into detail for each event, I will touch on its four modes of operation: participatory, exploratory, diffusion and a hybrid form of participatory/diffusion.
MPB EARTH: The Angle of Incidence is Equal to the Angle of Reflection (2008) is a good example of this method of interaction. This event, organized through TRUCK Gallery and Artcity (Calgary), offered public audiences the chance to partake in what LeBlanc called a “hands-on science experiment.” For the occasion, the MPB was linked to a weather balloon filled with helium. A small camera attached near the base of the balloon transmitted a continuous live feed of its point of view to the backpack monitor. Using a mirror and strings the participants were able to direct the eye of the camera to pick up what they wanted. MPB Earth sounds similar to Google Earth, and this was not accidental. The two share the same desire to view the places where we live, but LeBlanc’s motivations were slightly different: it was more about being in the world than capturing the globe. After all, the surveyors involved with MPB EARTH were the passersby, and the tool of investigation was a simple mirror bought at a local dollar store.
The experiment followed the law of reflection in physics that states the angle of incidence is equal to the angle of reflection. Science tells us that light is known to behave in a very predictable manner: when a ray of light hits a reflecting surface, it bounces off at the same angle. Mirrors, which have been linked to knowledge and space since the Middle Ages, behave in a different manner. French image/text theorist Liliane Louvel explains in Poetics of the Iconotext:
What is of import here is the mirror’s relation to knowledge, as a reservoir of meaning, as well as its synecdochic function as a microcosm reflecting a macrocosm. [ … ] Despite the boundaries of their frames, mirrors, which are ambiguous by nature, remain open artifacts because of the transient nature of the reflecting subject. Anything may fleetingly appear in them before disappearing again.
In MPB Earth, the mirror is the point of convergence between the physical world and the mediated world, between the spec-actors and the monitor, between the imaging capacity of a large corporation such as Google and the less extravagant gesture of individuals taking ownership of what belongs to them, their representation in the world. This interplay of reflection, inversion and mediation offers chances to reevaluate and redefine the maps we inhabit.
There was another layer of meaning embedded in MPB Earth’s visuals, one that was not obvious to the spectators. This intertextuality alluded to La Quasi-Modo, a character in a biogenetic fiction created by LeBlanc for “tippy’s recipe,” a regular column published on the JUiCYHEADS webzine. After landing in the wrong geographical location, La Quasi-Modo built a machine that would allow him/her to escape. This fictional machine incorporated many of MPB Earth’s elements, including a makeshift flight/observation apparatus. It is interesting to note in June 2013, Google launched Project Loon, a stratospheric system of balloons that might eventually deliver 3G service to off-the-grid areas.
These projects are often part of a process that results in the production of photographs, videos and/or texts. In MPB End of Signal (2011), LeBlanc tried to access over-the-air TV broadcast signals before the mandatory digital conversion was imposed by the CRTC with fees attached. The experiment was attempted in different locations in Canada’s Maritime provinces with surprising results. The old Trans-Canada Highway in Sackville, New Brunswick provided better reception than the artist’s home in Moncton, even with a homemade antenna. This shift from free analog television to clearer, but costly, digital TV, prompted LeBlanc to assess the value of content over delivery.
This is probably the most evident mode of operation for the MPB. The apparatus is an obvious platform for screening works and has been used in a variety of earlier projects in Fredericton, Calgary, Edmonton (2005) and Antibes, Cannes, Vallauris (2006).
There is a fourth hybrid category, participatory/diffusion, which includes many projects. In it, we find: FICFA, Dieppe and Edmonton (2005), La Dauphine, France (2006) and MPB Curates (2007).
The MPB Curates 2007 was an important endeavor on many levels. For the project, LeBlanc curated a video program with works by Canadian artists Amalie Atkins, Terry Billings, Linda Rae Dornan, Jim Goertz and Jeffrey Jackson. The program was screened in four different locations, Edmonton, Drumheller and two separate outings in Calgary. LeBlanc wanted to further expand the MPB experience by inviting guest carriers. Mark Lowe, Duncan Kenworthy and Eduardo Martinez each became MPB representatives and along with LeBlanc, they interacted with passersby while screening the video program.
We now live in a world of screens, and thanks to Google’s Project Loon, screens and ads will soon be everywhere. Now the question for the MPB is a question of relevance: Does it have a place in a world full of smartphones and tablets? With each new project, Valerie LeBlanc confronts and answers this very question. The MPB’s technology is older, but there is something unique about its bulkiness. It is undeniably a material object, a thing that encourages one-to-one contact in a public setting, a catalyst for exchange and a chance to say something about the world without strings attached. It is a place, as Henri Lefebvre once noted, “of simultaneity and encounter.”
The very first slogan of the MPB, “Mediated World on the Street,” is interesting on many levels. Mediated means to act through, to depend on; in this case, both phrases relate to technology, but it also means to settle a dispute, to reconcile, and these definitions define interactions between people, between participants. The creation of the MPB was motivated by a desire to act, to play, to say something without waiting for nods of approval from galleries and curators. It was an empowerment, a way for the artist to merge public space and art, a way to reconcile the world of possibilities with the world of realities, and in this regard, the MPB is still relevant.
Daniel H. Dugas
- Kostas Axelos. “Play as the System of Systems,” SubStance 8 (1979): 24. ↵
- Nicolas Bourriaud, Esthétique relationnelle (Dijon, France: Les presses du réel, 1998). ↵
- On the term 500-channel-universe, coined by John Malone, see Alex Williams, “I Want My 500 Channels,” New York Magazine 30 (February 24, 1997): 32–36. For a candid comment about the future of television and the intricacies of interactivity, see Kenneth R. Clark, “Man on the Spot,” Chicago Tribune, March 23, 1993. The first smartphone was the BellSouth/IBM Simon (1993). As a reference, the Palm Pilot came on the market in 1996 and the iPhone in 2007. See “Bellsouth, IBM unveil personal communicator phone,” Mobile Phone News, Nov 8, 1993, last modified July 7, 2013, http://research.microsoft.com/en-us/um/people/bibuxton/buxtoncollection/a/pdf/press%20release%201993.pdf On the Web 2.0, see Darcy DiNucci, “Fragmented Future,” Print magazine (April 1999): 221–222, http://www.darcyd.com/fragmented_future.pdf ↵
- In 1993 the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis organized a pivotal exhibition/publication, In the Spirit of Fluxus. See Janet Jenkins, ed., In the Spirit of Fluxus (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Walker Art Center, 1993). ↵
- See Robert Morris, “Notes on Sculpture,” in Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology, ed. Gregory Battcock, (New York: E.P. Dutton Inc., 1968), 232–234: “The experience of the work necessarily exists in time [ …. ] The better new work takes relationships out of the work and makes them a function of space, light, and the viewer’s field of vision […. ].One is more aware than before that he himself is establishing relationships as he apprehends the object from various positions and under varying conditions of light and spatial context.” ↵
- Kostas, Axelos. “Planetary Interlude,” trans. Sally Hess. Yale French Studies 41: Game, Play, Literature (1968): 6. See also Stuart Elden, “Kostas Axelos and the World of the Arguments Circle,” in After the Deluge: New Perspectives on Postwar French Intellectual and Cultural History of Postwar France, ed. J. Bourg (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2004), 125–148. ↵
- See Henri Lefebvre, “The Right to the City,” in Writing on Cities, translated and introduced by Eleonore Kofman and Elizabeth Lebas (Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1996), 148. ↵
- For more information about the TRUNK© gallery, see “TRUNK© gallery (1996–1999) Valerie LeBlanc,” last modified July 7, 2013, http://valerie.basicbruegel.com/trunk©-gallery-1996-1999/ Included is a reprint of an article that appeared in Mix Magazine, “Opening the TRUNK© to Release the 9 to 5,” MIX magazine 25.3 (Winter 1999/2000), 54–55. ↵
- MediaPackBoard’s fourth year of programming (2008) was launched on Saturday, September 13, 2008, presented through Calgary’s TRUCK Gallery and Artcity. For a description of MPB events since 2005, see “MPB Valerie LeBlanc,” last modified July 7, 2013, http://valerie.basicbruegel.com/mediapackboard/ ↵
- See “MPB Earth: The Angle Of Incidence Is Equal To The Angle Of Reflection,” 2008,last modified January 6, 2014, http://valerie.basicbruegel.com/mediapackboard/earth/ ↵
- Liliane Louvel, Poetics of the Iconotext, ed. Karen Jacobs, trans. Laurence Petit (Farnham: Ashgate, 2011), 139–140. ↵
- In the 1970s Augusto Boal developed the concept of the spect-actor, a process where a passive spectator becomes an actor. See the “Theater of the Oppressed,” http://www.theatredelopprime.com/quinoussommes.html ↵
- See “tippy’s recipe” (1995–2012) published as a serial on the JUiCYHEADS website from April 1, 2012 to December 30, 2012. In Episode 2, “From Bad to Worse” (April 8, 2012), La Quasi-Modo puts together her costume: “She tied the balloon to a packsack and strapped it onto her back. Stepping over to a mirror, she remembered that it would be best to seal the surface of the balloon. A plastic rain poncho proved light enough and it was also the perfect solution to hiding the crudeness of this ‘homemade’ bump. Tossing a fishing net over the top, she then used the mirror to guide the smoothing out of wrinkles and secured the poncho around her waist with kite string. The combination of the poncho’s transparent blue plastic slung over the pink weather balloon, tied up with the red string lent the appearance of a half-formed creature. It had something related to the human embryonic state, the genetic beginnings of a sea creature, or a jelly dessert for a Fluxist birthday party.” This Quasi-Modo could also be linked, aesthetically this time, to another fictional character, a savant named de Selby who was created by Flann O’Brien in his novel, The Third Policeman (1940). The research of de Selby included an investigation “of the nature of time and eternity by a system of mirrors.” See footnote, Flann O’Brien, The Third Policeman (London: Hart-Davis, MacGibbon, 1967), 64. ↵
- “Google’s Loon Project Puts Balloon Technology in Spotlight,” last modified July 3, 2013, http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/06/130618-google-balloon-wireless-communication-internet-hap-satellite-stratosphere-loon-project/ ↵
- “Canadian local over-the-air television stations have converted to digital television,” last modified July 4, 2013, http://www.crtc.gc.ca/eng/info_sht/bdt14.htm ↵
- “The Right to the City,” in Writing on Cities, translated and introduced by Eleonore Kofman and Elizabeth Lebas (Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1996), 148. ↵