Something is Happening / Quelque chose se produit
Tanya St-Pierre and Philippe-Aubert Gauthier
“Pararealism: Philippe-Aubert Gauthier and Tanya St-Pierre’s Something is Happening”
Essay by Joseph Henry / 2013
The computer-generated image has been on a long march toward respectability. In the form’s nascent stages, naturalism remained a distant goal approachable through sheer technological development. Yet in roughly twenty years, CGI’s mimetic quality has adjusted from embryonic to virtuoso capacities. In the quest for increasingly higher resolution, computer-rendered representations have in fact surpassed believability into excess, providing more detail than the human eye can even process. In pursuit of the real, contemporary CGI has overloaded its truth-value; realistic renderings have paradoxically never been both technically so convincing and so artificial. If there’s an accurate representation of something in CGI, it lies along an elastic spectrum of truth in strange proximity to the image at hand.
In their cerebral, deconstructive work, Sherbrooke, QC-based artists Philippe-Aubert Gauthier and Tanya St-Pierre break down the virtual image’s verisimilitude into its concomitant parts in an effort to rigorously consider how images gain their believability. If verisimilitude signifies, per the Oxford Dictionary, “the appearance of being true or real,” of not quite being true or real, Gauthier and St-Pierre then investigate the visual forces at play that abet and hinder the viewer’s acceptance of the rendered object before them. This mimetic ambiguity runs its course through their most recent project, the multi- farious, exacting installation Something is Happening, exhibited at Artspace in Peterbourough, Ontario last fall.
The artists organize their installation around a central leitmotif: a digital rendering of large, upright studio lights like those employed for commercial photography shoots. In Something Is Happening, Gauthier and St-Pierre rearticulate the image through sundry incarnations and presentation formats. Across Artspace’s luminous gallery, the lamps variously appear as components of moving image, large-scale portraiture, landscape, and even as sonic evocations in an installational sound piece, with every instance tethered back to their primary CGI referent. In this polyfurcation, Gauthier and St-Pierre break down the lamps into a series of representations, neither more “realistic” than the next.
Yet the viewer does not merely gloss their eyes over an array of surface images dissipated throughout the gallery, as if to walk away understanding all is illusion. Gauthier and St-Pierre shrewdly evoke the palpable presence of the lamp in a provocative back-and-forth between presence and absence across media both physical and digital. Adjacent to the gallery entrance, the artists present images of the studio lamps in a trio of roughly seven-foot tall portraits. Each portrait is printed on roll paper and mounted on standard studio apparatuses used to support paper and cloth for on-site backdrops. To achieve a distinct anthropomorphic quality, Gauthier and St-Pierre draw on the proportional 1/3 composition and figural lighting conventions of Renaissance portraiture for each lamp, as if to equate them with the typical human subjects of portraiture. The effect is indelible: as high-resolution inky prints (each image at Artspace takes up about four gigabytes – the approximate file size of a feature-length film), the portraits carry a material force at odds with their entirely computer-generated depiction. Gauthier and St- Pierre initiate a conceptual play whereby the literal devices of the bulky paper and support structures correspond to a virtual rendition of their real-life counterpart, rendered through the open source CGI program Blender. Yet, the lights are only summoned at Artspace: the real thing never appears. It’s this perceptual slippage that interests Gauthier and St-Pierre, how CGI works off an object we all understand to exist but circularly moves around it in a choreography of quasi-mimesis: the CGI image is ‘pararealistic,’ understood as both accurate and fake.
This, in fact, might be the basic premise of any figurative art-making: we see something visibly fake, yet understand it to be in reality, referential. But in Something is Happening, Gauthier and St-Pierre take formal and conceptual pains to comment on the virtual means of production behind their CGI objects. The French title of the exhibition, Quelque chose se produit, directly translates as “something is happening” and “something is produced.” Written in the passive voice, Gauthier and St-Pierre’s title dislodges the active hand of the artist wherein the trace of art making goes flatly invisible, as seen in a series of “landscapes” which document the digital construction of the exhibition’s key image: a resolutely artificial yet strangely sumptuous studio tableau of each lamp shining on a patch of grass with a hovering mist effect. Each landscape image in turn builds up the scene, beginning with the generic factory-like studio, and leading to the completed image before culminating in a depiction of the mist effect alone in space.
Through the landscapes, Gauthier and St-Pierre compare the production process of the photographic studio (lights, camera, object) with the ostensibly more distanced act of creation on Blender (parameter, algorithm, visualization). The last landscape image presents a representationally impossible set up, in which the artificially static mist can only be explained as digital intervention, divorced as it is from any other object. Here, Something is Happening pushes its play of verisimilitude to an end point and the limit of the viewer’s willingness to accept the digital. Gauthier and St-Pierre performatively accumulate and then subtly dissemble our expectations of naturalism in a gesture that exposes our, in truth, quite unstable attachment to the digital as accurate or realistic. It might be, but it so easily isn’t. That hinging ambiguity, that skeptical commitment, forms the crux of Gauthier and St-Pierre’s rich visual play.
To accompany their perceptual drama, Gauthier and St-Pierre include something of a coup-de-grace with the exhibition’s aural and moving image components. Opposite the studio landscape series, the artists project a video of the completed grassy studio scene. The camera simply pans in and out on a fixed perspective; instead of promising immersion, the video merely reinscribes the resolute latness of the initial tableau. But as if to perpetually keep realism in suspension, Gauthier and St-Pierre employ a device which literally vibrates the screen paper, analogically producing and amplifying a perpetual drone meant to mimic the studio lights’ actual sound if kept on for an actual shoot. The distinct, ambient buzz holds throughout the viewer’s experience of the installation and satu- rates the space with the lights’ virtual, invisible presence. The video, sound, and array of photographs suggest Gauthier and St-Pierre’s ultimate objective with Something is Happening – to register the ex- act leap of faith required to understand our digitally infused cultural vision as constant. The lights, already a cliché symbol for cognitive ‘illumination,’ trick rather than reveal; they shine on an evanescent, deeply constructed scenario, both virtually in CGI and physically in the exhibition’s atomistic structure. Gauthier and St-Pierre ask us precisely to question the nature of the thing somehow happening in increasingly unreliable realms of understanding.
Joseph Henry is a critic and sometimes curator living in Montreal. He’s written for venues such as The Los Angeles Review of Books, Canadian Art, The New Inquiry, esse, BLOUIN ARTINFO, and M-KOS.
Formerly the Assistant Editor of BLOUIN ARTINFO Canada, he’s founded an experimental platform for criticism titled Grey On Grey, to be launched soon. In addition to his writing, Joseph has worked at museums including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art. His recent research focuses on the aesthetics of historicity in American video art and the politics of net art.
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