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luc courchesne : Portraits of dialogue
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Portraits of dialogue
The condition of sociability in the interactive portraiture of Luc Courchesne

by Jean Gagnon, translated by Bernard Schütze

Some artists, whether through intuition or analysis, succeed in seizing the problematic that rests at the heart of a chosen medium or technique. The manipulation of technical processes linked to that medium permits them to expose certain telling dimensions of the human condition. Their works are therefore not only aesthetic, but (by way of this very process) ethical in the true sense of the term. Luc Courchesne's portraits are precisely of this nature. Their "interactivity" is presented in the form of a dialogue between people - an ethical relation in which questions of intersubjectivity, seduction, and "the face" are all combined. These portraits prefigure a form of sociability - or a type of relationship with the "Other" - that emerged in the years following their initial creation, with the rise of what we now know as "cyberspace".

Having created several video portraits in the 1980s, Luc Courchesne was already quite familiar with the genre by the time he began making interactive examples. The first of his interactive portraits (undoubtedly the most important, and one I shall return to in more detail later) was Portrait One (1990). In this installation, we are invited to meet a woman named Marie, and have a conversation with her. The dialogue here is completely fictional, since the artist himself has predetermined the questions we are able to ask her, as well as the themes and attitudes contained in Marie's response.

Following Portrait One, Luc Courchesne created several installations which were essentially interactive "group portraits", including Family Portrait (1993) - a "documentary" in which a small community of friends is filmed by the artist, who ultimately inserts himself into the scene as well. The artist reconstructs this society in virtual space and then provides the gallery spectator with entry points that allow them to participate by interposing themselves into the conversation between the virtual characters. After creating Family Portrait, Courchesne also made Portrait of Paula Dawson (1993) - a single character interactive portrait of the real-life Australian artist and holographer Paula Dawson. Following this, Courchesne returned to fiction proper with Hall of Shadows (1996).

Dialogue
Whether fictional or documentary, individual or collective, all of Courchesne's video portraits share one common quality: their "interactivity" manifests itself in the form of dialogue. This makes all the difference in the world. For several years, the term "interactivity" has been served up in so many different ways, by so many different interests, that it is ultimately difficult to arrive at a satisfactory definition of what "interactivity" actually means. The word is often associated with the ability of a spectator or "interactor" to intervene in the unfolding of a work; or it can indicate the potential for some kind of active engagement with a piece of art by the viewer, as opposed to the traditional more passive contemplation. However, this notion remains so badly defined that is barely of any use at all at present. And if the definition of "interactivity" suggests nothing more than a vague possibility of action facilitated by computer systems, then why use it at all?

When he created Portrait One, Luc Courchesne succeeded in moving beyond such vague definitions. His portraits are based on dialogue - a dynamic far more interesting than the playful button clicks of certain reputed new media artists whose names will go unmentioned. Dialogue as a concept has resurfaced in the philosophical movements of the past four decades - particularly in France with the work of Emanuel Levinas and Paul Ricoeur, and also in the philosophy of language.1 The notion of dialogue has allowed philosophers to escape the solipsism that previously burdened Western philosophical notions of self-consciousness and the relationship to the Other.

In fact, dialogue opens us up to intersubjectivity, which is the foundation of subjectivity. In other words: if I do not speak to the Other, then I do not exist. Language is of course the foundation of this dialectic between Self and Other. This gives rise to an ethics of reciprocity toward the Other - whether I speak with him or her, or become the subject of their address. This equation is particularly present in Portrait One. Marie, the fictional character, says it remarkably well:

This is what I think. The others are so close and yet so far! The most creative gesture is the one that leads you to the other. This gesture is never futile. Unions are sealed. Children are born. Actions are taken. Systems are instituted. All this because of a gesture, a word that's spoken. It's crazy! We are the fruit of this gesture and yet this gesture of reaching out to the other has to be forever repeated!

Marie points out the important role that language plays in our attempts to break the endemic solitude that surrounds us, and also reveals the ways in which speech addressed to another constitutes a gesture toward them, an attempt to reach out, uniting us and committing both parties to responsibility and action.

The Face and Seduction
Despite all of this, if Courchesne's video portraits were nothing more than simple illustrations of relatively obscure and complex philosophies such as these - or even of ethics - then they would not succeed in engaging the spectator's sense of involvement. To speak for myself, if the first portrait (and those that followed) did reach out to me and captivate my attention in some way, it was because there was something else present: faces and voices, and hence bodies. Combined with the voice, the face is a force - a hailing, a call. In short, a seduction.

Seduction plays an important role here, because it is properly aesthetic; it acts to transform a mechanical computer system into a successful work of art. All of these faces reach out to us: their voices establish a presence, create an opening through which we feel obliged to respond. This calling out can create a society based on two people, as in Portrait One, or many, as with Family Portrait or Hall of Shadows. Whether the dialogue be sustained or interrupted, we respond to the call. We may respond positively or negatively, enter into the dialogue or withdraw from it, but either way we are drawn into the ethical dilemmas that hang upon our relationship to the Other.

Sociability
When Luc Courchesne created his first portrait in 1990, the Internet (though it already existed) was not present in public consciousness in the same way that it is today. The World Wide Web had barely been born. At that time, nobody suspected that Courchesne's portraits contained a "premonitory" element. But in grounding themselves in the very foundations of sociability, dialogue, intersubjectivity, and seduction, these works eventually proved themselves indicative of the new cyberspace sociability. Since that time, we have all witnessed these same phenomena brought to bear in the online quest for love and all its concomitant myriad fantasies - in which individuals, men and women, invest themselves in virtual space through their relationship with virtual "persons". Once again, Marie had already said it all:

With me it's too easy. I can only be the impossible love, a detour which occupies desire at no risk!... Yes, but with me, your gesture doesn't bear any consequences. Will you dare as much with the person standing nearby?

I find it remarkable that, in our society with its powerful communication media, solitude is so widely spread, and so deeply felt. This aspect of contemporary society has been studied by numerous sociologists, so I will not dwell on it for long. Suffice it to say that it is interesting that the sociability brought about by these new communication media should have become paradoxical, and ultimately based upon fear of the Other and the refusal of dialogue as a principle. It is possible that this indicates the refusal, or fear, of seduction: that is to say, the fear of letting oneself be led off the path, of venturing from the well-trodden route, of embarking upon adventures.

One does not really encounter, in Luc Courchesne's artwork, any kind of direct social commentary, or the sorts of perversion of dialogue that can emerge from social inequalities, hierarchies, or power struggles. Rather, for me, Courchesne's interactive portraits allow us to question the condition of sociability itself, by leading us to recognize that part of ourselves which is based upon the Other. Courchesne's portraits invite us to pass through dialogue in order to awaken this responsibility toward the Self which requires the Other; an experience that signifies our individual Self's responsibility toward the Other in return.

Jean Gagnon served as Director of Programs at The Daniel Langlois Foundation for Art, Science and Technology from 1998 until March 2003, when he was named Executive Director. As a curator for the Foundation, he organized The Body of the Line: Eisenstein's Drawings, the first exhibition of the Russian filmmaker's drawings ever to be held in North America. From 1999 to 2002, Gagnon was also the Producer, and the Director of Prototyping, for Digital Snow, a dvd-rom about the work of artist Michael Snow. From 1991 to 1998, Gagnon was Associate Curator of Media Arts at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa.

Note :
1. For more on the philosophical consideration of dialogue, see Jean Gagnon's essay "Blind date in cyberspace, or the figure that speaks", first published in Artintact 2 (ZKM and Cantz Verlag: 1995). The essay is presently available online at: http://www.fondation-langlois.org/flash/f/stage.php?NumPage=158

Link :
Luc Courchesne
www.din.umontreal.ca/courchesne/

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