In the Sonar

Marie-Jo Lafontaine's I love the world

text: Alexander Jackob

Netherlands; Amsterdam; (M.A.) Universiteit van Amsterdam

The eyes of the philosopher as well as of the man of the world are now anxiously turned to the theatre of political events, where they presume to see a negotiation of the great destiny of man. Would it not bespeak reprehensible indifference to the welfare of society if one were not to share this general interest?

Friedrich Schiller: Letters on the Aesthetical Education of Man. Second letter.

The moment when renowned artist Marie Jo Lafontaine projected her image and sound montage I love the world (music by Michael Fahres) onto eleven skyscrapers of the international banking and insurance sector as part of the opening of the 2006 soccer world championship in Frankfurt/Main can truly be described by the concept of the sublime. The production was an aesthetic borderline experience in various ways. For one, it represented the confrontation with a colossal projection screen whose spatial and acoustic range surpassed almost everything that the international art scene had seen to date. The dimensions of this work of art transcend description or re-creation in sheer numbers or mathematical sizes. The fact that the name Skyarena was used to describe this event can be interpreted to indicate that only a metaphor that operates at the brink of imagination can capture the scale of the performance. At this point, a strict limitation of conception may reduce the idea of arena to the basic connotation of a place of sport and competition and read it as a simple allusion to the soccer world championship. The very self-understanding and dimension of the soccer world championship as a colossal and global performance and phenomenon of marketing contradicts this notion. The localizing of the arena within a sky which reaches the horizon of our perception, and the enormous technical effort that has turned this space into a stage clearly manifests that any attempt to gain access to this space based on too narrow a concept must fail. On the contrary: this arena evokes the reflection of a time when in ancient Roman society arenas as the site of fights (Wett-Kampf-Stätten) were immediately analogous to a world view in which only the killing of one's opponent on a stage before a huge audience ensured survival. The arena thus became a metaphor that denotes a world that is closed in itself and its immanent ways of perception (Anschauungen). Simultaneously, the arena is taken to be the origin and model for mass spectacle and the mechanisms of activating the masses in today's global society. This view also refers to the ideology of fights that is present in the comparison of the ancient arena to the Frankfurt Skyarena: who did not think of terms such as corporate raider, deregulation, victory of capitalism or – if one were willing to risk the laughter of the promoters of the free market without state intervention – of predatory capitalism when seeing the skyline of Frankfurt's financial district?

Those who know the comprehensive oeuvre of Marie-Jo Lafontaine can neither expect the artist to downplay the scale or complexity of problems of the performance location, nor by means of premature moralistic judgments ignore its utterances of life that reach the limits of the humane. On the contrary, the playing with the sublime made possible an astonishing effect that transcended the spectacular nature of its setting.  Lafontaine achieved this effect by, among other things, juxtaposing proportions. On the fronts of the skyscrapers, larger-than-life images of toy robots or black-and-white portraits of children and teenagers did not seduce to silent amazement but rather irritated and challenged its audience to question what it was confronted with. By systematically using and cross-fading images from her own oeuvre and images from the collective memory of the audience, but also by using short texts, sounds and noises, Lafontaine presented a work of art that made it possible for the sense impressions and experiences of the audience to interact with the artist's augmented worlds of form and imagination. Despite the clear need for making an aesthetic decision, the resolute reservation and concentration on a few central motifs made it possible for the spectator to determine his or her own share in the issues and decisions of the artist and formulate a point of view.

Ultimately, the lasting impression left by the three performances of I love the world in the Skyarena cannot be separated from the special performance situation and the world-encompassing events of the 2006 soccer world championship. Thus, the Amsterdam presentation of the project in the form of a revised computer simulation is not an attempt to adequately recreate the event nor is it a reconstruction on the stage of another medium. The specific qualities of the current production of I love the world reflect an inherent value of its own. This essay can no more than sketch the numerous perspectives that the work's aesthetic qualities allow.

First, a comparison between the Frankfurt performance and the Amsterdam version reveals how perception and attitude to a high degree depend on situational influences and incessant changes in social and societal reality. In the face of the imminent collapse of the international finance sector it now seems impossible to view the Skyarena without a skeptical, if not bewildered, feeling. Two years ago the skyscrapers still appeared to be splendid and sublime temples of a 'victorious' economical ethics, which, defying all warning signals, self-confidently urged a total unleashing of the market. Today, the spectator feels prompted to differ with the conspicuous hubris of those societal castes that wished to vaporize or take ad absurdum all traditional civics. One of the most notable aspects of the larger Amsterdam 2008 context is that I love the world now provides a critical and differentiated glimpse of an event that is hard to grasp even for an insider and thereby gains an additional aura. This is the more true in connection with the topic of this conference: Orbis Pictus – Theatrum Mundi.

Moreover, further considerations of the aesthetic qualities of the Amsterdam version reveal that only the computer simulation makes the totality of the space and audio installation perceivable, which – except from the special location of the directors in Franfurt – ultimately was accesible to only a very limited audience. After all, the scale of the production two years ago presupposed that  visitors to downtown Frankfurt became part of the mise-en-scène. Thus, the over-view that the simulation provides means to enter simultaneously a point of view that allowed Lafontaine to realize her work of art but was inaccessible to a public until now.

Furthermore, the Amsterdam version grants insights into the creative process behind the production. The new intimate setting reveals how the artist combines her own and external powers of fantasy and imagination, a factor that also applies to the indispensable element of the work of the musician and sound artist Michael Fahres. The computer simulation alone allows us immediately to see and feel the genesis of worlds of images and sound. The irony of this situation lies in the fact that the emerging tension between the simulation and the 'real' Frankfurt skyline cannot be resolved in any one direction. The simulation is neither a simulacrum that dissolves reality, nor does the very concept of reality contain any claim to ultimate truth. Solely in the mirror of simulation technology can one enter a scene that – although existing in reality – can only with critical reservation be considered to be real.

As I have indicated before, the musical composition by Michael Fahres deserves special attention. Specifically for the Amsterdam production, the audio track was revised and remixed in the DTS multi-channel audio system. Even more than in Frankfurt, the production now demonstrates the specific possibilities of a concentrated and dramaturgically exact sound design that in its totality generates a comprehensive soundscape. Sounds from nature blend with voices and synthetic noises. Thus three-dimensional sound images (Klangbilder) emerge that directly interfere with the visual and tactile field of the spectator/listener and challenge, stimulate and occasionally irritate his perception. Especially noteworthy in this context is the way the very materiality of sound transports and mediates the trace of the physical experience of the Frankfurt production in arguably the most immediate fashion.

The physical dimension of the soundscape becomes perceivable at the very beginning of the approximately 16-minute-performance. A sonar enters into the depths of the realm created by sound and images, a realm which up to that point seemed to consist only of the mute mise-en-scène of the skyscrapers. Even before the scene fully comes to life, the work of art demands for the spectator to pay attention by transforming him into listener. Then, in clearly structured intervals images, voices, and texts appear – Lafontaine herself proposes the analogy of a temporal tryptic – which seem at first to reflect a kaleidoscopic view of an urban metropolis. Black and white portraits of children are replaced by shots of politicians, cover pages of fashion and economy journals, or large patches of colors. Marie-Jo Lafontaine summarizes this first part as describing [...] a suspense curve in-between the formative elements of contemporary society: the global political powers, the power of media as creators and leaders of opinion, the power of economy, of money, the power of technology and progress – and that of lying! The second part shows, among other things, adolescents looking down from the skyline and blending with photos of masks of animals such as monkeys or rabbits. The dark suits of the masked people immediately bring up Kafkaesque associations with a new, polyphonic Report for an Academy. Moreover, the animal masks are shown to conceal or assert identities, to be a play on truth, but also to be locations of a potential avowal and an unmasking. The return of the child portraits in the third part supports such a perspective. Voices of teenagers accompany and occasionally contrast the image stream with questions and statements that lead to this return. The short sequences of words thus form another level of reflection within another medium. When, finally, clouds appear on the skyscrapers – Give me some air – one may even get the impression that the appropriating grandeur of the architecture briefly vanishes to make room for a larger  spectacle. Translated by Götz Dapp



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