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Interview with Luc Courchesne
Our feature artist articulates his viewpoint in 360 degrees
by Sylvie Parent, translated by Bernard Schütze

The first time I saw a work of Luc Courchesne's was in 1990, at PRIM, a Montreal artists' centre specialized in the production and dissemination of video. The work was entitled Portrait One, and I still remember the extraordinary impression it made on me. There were few interactive works in existence at the time, and it was the technology that first piqued my curiosity. But as soon as I entered the exchange with "Marie" - the character represented in the work - I forgot all about the surrounding context, and even about the device that made the encounter possible.

Courchesne has been working in interactive video for nearly twenty years, which makes him a pioneer in the field. In 1984, he produced Elastic Movies with a group from MIT. This was one of the first interactive video works, employing laser disks and a computer system for managing video sequences in real time. Courchesne subsequently used this technology in the production of several projects, including Encyclopedia Chiaroscuro (1987), his first solo installation, made up of a series of short videos taken from his personal universe.

When he produced Portrait One in 1990, Courchesne says he was looking for "bold content". He explained: "By deciding to revisit the tradition of the portrait, I was also hoping to show that computer-based art could be seen as simply art. After sculpture, painting, and photography, portraiture could very well take a new form, using hypervideo to portray its subject."

Courchesne later produced works composed of multiple portraits, such as Family Portrait (1993) and Hall of Shadows (1996). The proliferation of characters meant more complex staging and plotting of the content; visitors to these installations were met by small virtual societies. Conversing with each of the characters, the visitor could learn to know them and establish connections between them.

The spatial deployment suggested by the presentation of several characters at once then led Courchesne to conceive artworks that were more immersive. In Landscape One, for example, he proposed a natural environment that one can explore through characters met during the visit. The artist later developed a single-channel panoramic projection technology, the Panoscope, which enabled him to produce a greater degree of immersiveness, and to simplify the creative process. To date, works produced with this technology include Panoscopic Journal (2000), The Visitor: Living by Numbers (2001), and Skins (2003).

Also worth mentioning among Courchesne's other major projects is the telepresence installation titled Rendez-vous sur les bancs publics (1999), which Courchesne created along with staff from the Society for Arts and Technology (SAT) in Montreal.

This issue of HorizonZero presents several documents introducing the work of Luc Courchesne. The following interview was conducted by email during the month of September 2003, and provides insight into the artist's recent and future work.

Interview with the Artist

Sylvie Parent: Over the last several years your interactive projects have focused on an increasingly immersive spatial experience, especially with your creation of panoramic works. Could you explain this new direction in your work?

Luc Courchesne: With Portrait One (1990), I first worked with portraits in the same way that painters and photographers did before me. And I told myself that the only thing that distinguished me from them was technique. So I went in search of my "subjects" and their "truth" and my relationship with them. In the beginning, the visitor shared the space with my characters - they appeared as a ghostly presence. But when I was invited to create a series of portraits for the Museum of New Zealand in 1996, I realized how territory played an important role in shaping my subjects' identity, and that in order to bring this out I needed to introduce landscape elements into the representation of the characters. At the same time, I created Paysage no.1 in 1997. It was an interactive panorama which for the first time presented landscape as the real subject of the installation; the characters who are placed there, and with whom the visitors interact, have no other purpose but the exploration of the territory. It is at this time that my work began to turn toward landscape representation, which allowed me to touch upon another important visual arts genre. Here again, the only thing that distinguished me from landscape painters and photographers was the technique, not the subject of the relationship to space.

The research I undertook to achieve my ends - which were to eliminate the frame, produce the sensation of immersion - immediately led me to the 19th century creators of panoramas. In my view, they invented an exemplary way of representing space, a new relationship to space inherited from the romantics, in which viewers are assailed on all sides by the surrounding world - a world in which they are taken in by their subjective viewpoint (in opposition to the objective Cartesian viewpoint, which brought us single point perspective). In order to follow in the footsteps of the 19th century panoramists, all I needed to do was bring the technology up to date. However, the interactive dimension, which is inherent to artists who work with computers, added a new dimension to the panoramic experience: in an interactive panorama (one that reacts to a visitor) the observer is not only over-exposed (ie, submerged), s/he also becomes the instrument of a system, which contrary to appearances, is controlled and instrumentalized by this system.

SP: In order to create a unique image that the visitor can inhabit, you needed to change your working method and develop new tools. What were the factors that motivated you to make these changes?

LC: I believe that artistic work proceeds according to distinct processes: one consists of letting a voice emerge, and the other involves discovering and mastering a technique which will allow it to be heard. At certain moments of the artist's work, it can happen that the technical overtakes the more intimate and personal process that is the fountainhead of expression. This happened to me in the 1980s when I was first exposed to interactive video techniques. This was also the case when I had to reinvent my toolbox to represent a frameless imaginary space in which spontaneous interpersonal relations could arise. Though my immersive video and telepresence explorations appear to be quite technical, they are motivated by an artistic intention that is always waiting for the right moment to arrive. In the meantime, I believe that it is both natural and judicious to balance the two approaches.

SP: Have other artists used the tools that you have developed?

LC: I regularly lend my panoramic cameras to people who want to try them. For instance, Catherine Béchard took one with her to Iqaluit in the Arctic, where she spent several months. The photographs and short animations which she made are quite remarkable. Many of my students have also used them, and I organize a yearly presentation of their projects. Right now, there are only two panoscopes (a single-channel device) available on earth; one is permanently installed at the SAT in Montreal, and the other is used for my travelling installation exhibits. Artists who would like to experiment with it and use it to present their work have to come here to the SAT. Ideally (and to begin with) several artist and research centres like the SAT (five or six) could considerably accelerate the development of a repertoire of panoscopic works and applications. I dream of an annual meeting where the results of these experimentations could be shown to the community of artist-developers, and eventually the public.

SP: You are currently developing projects for new projection surfaces, like the panoscope. In what way does the technique developed for this project allow you to achieve the spatial experience you are looking for?

LC: The panoscope is a panoramic single-channel projection technique on which I've been working since the fall of 1999. The process, which led me from the initial idea to the actual versions of the concept, is fascinating. It consisted of trial and error, tenacious intuitions that resisted initial failures before finally ending up somewhere that one did not expect.

What I am trying to accomplish is to simplify the creation and presentation of immersive images. The single-channel device approach makes it possible to immerse the spectator using only one source. Since all traditional production tools can be used, this greatly reduces equipment cost both for production and presentation purposes. During filming, one need only add a special optical device (a panoramic lens) to the camera (or a supplementary image transformation operation for 3-D rendition) and, for hemispheric projection, a lens and space designed for this purpose. A single computer is enough to run the device. In comparison with a system like the CAVE, this system is extremely simple. It is consequently affordable for independent artists who, alone, have the power to give birth to the most promising forms of the culture of our time.

SP: One of your future projects is called La Sphère aux Mascarillons, a work which you are developing with Nicolas Reeves and Sébastien Roy. [On the inside of a large sphere which can receive installation visitors, projections of cubic elements float in the space, move and are transformed according to algorithmic progressions.] How do you view this project?

LC: It is well known that artists and researchers learn from each other, that they influence each other. But when they work together this becomes even more apparent. The great joy in La Sphère aux Mascarillons is that it has made it possible for each one of us to push our explorations in directions that were not possible before. I am fascinated by Nicolas' formal algorithmic approach, and through contact with me, he in turn discovered the "visitor" of the work. Sébastien applies his image processing genius to create small miracles with my curved projection spaces. By making it possible to project them in an immersive environment, he gives Nicolas' impossible architectures a surprising reality. In the end, my characters will become "unpredictable", Nicolas' architectures "inhabitable", and Sébastien's advanced research will likely find its place in the artistic domain. La Sphère aux Mascarillons is above all a laboratory where the intentions of the three researchers and their teams converge. This will result in a creation platform to be shared between us and those generous enough to take part in it. Eventually, from now to three years hence, Nicolas, Sébastien and I will add our own artistic proposals to the platform. Though it may be too soon to say what these will be, I already realize that this research-creation project is leading my formal exploration towards abstraction.

SP: The panoramic single-channel projection system developed for the recent panoramic works was made possible by hard work on the technological level. You now want to create some less technologically complex works that will put more emphasis on the poetic aspect. What do these works consist of?

LC: Though I remain attached to an image that eliminates the frame, as well as the idea of a work that is "conscious" of its environement, I am currently trying to create more simple and spontaneous propositions. This approach differs from what motivated me in the 1990s, a period during which my works usually took three years to be completed. I am also rediscovering photography, an invention which revolutionized our perception, and which still remains to be fully explored. I view photography in opposition to drawing and computer modeling, which are not part of my expressive palette.

SP: Could you tell us about your involvement with the new telepresence projects organized by the SAT that follow up on the telematic work Rendez-vous sur les bancs publics, which you created with the organization in 1999.

LC: After having made ten or so interactive portraits wherein the dialogue between a subject and the visitor were made possible through a list of given questions leading to a series of pre-recorded answers, the works Jeu de chaises (1998) and Rendez-vous sur les bancs publics led me to appreciate the unpredictable and limitless aspect of direct interpersonal interaction. In placing the museum visitors into a relationship with each other, one substitutes an artificial pseudo-intelligence with the visitors' real and unpredictable one. Finally, I realized that the ultimate goal of my works was always to create a context for encounters. This is an essential collective experience that always has to be reworked because the technological and human context is never the same. The big discovery is to what point the interface device, the context, influences the development of the exchanges. It is in this that the artistic merit of this type of installation resides.

SP: One of the projects that you are involved with at the SAT is the SAT[o_Sphère]. How far has the SAT[o_Sphère] been developed, and in what context will it be used?

LC: The SAT[o_Sphère] is an inverted panoscope (or a more conventional dome). All the technologies developed for the panoscope can therefore be applied to the SAT[o_Sphère]. Monique Savoie, the director of the SAT, had this idea because she dreams of having the SAT and its artists travel around the world. The inflatable dome, which can receive an audience while transporting them through projections and music, for example, is the most minimal (and economical) matrix of the kind of digital culture that the SAT represents. It is an open invitation for all those who make things happen here; the first public presentations are slated for the fall of 2004.

Sylvie Parent is French Editor for HorizonZero.

Links :
Luc Courchesne

Langlois foundation profile

Web version of Portrait One

The Panoscope

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