Articulated Intersect and the Spectacle System

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Intersection articulée.
Architecture relationnelle 18, 2011
Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal
Triennale québécoise 2011


 

This article proposes an improbable exercise: the analysis of a work of art through the lens of The Society of the Spectacle.1 The exercise is improbable because Debord’s book was certainly not conceived in view of applying it in this manner to art world objects, quite to the contrary: within its pages culture is presented as a “dead object,” art as a complicit component of the “commodity spectacle,” and art criticism as an element of “the spectacular system’s specialized thought branch.” Despite this aphorism, and given that today’s art world is evidently at the service of spectacle, it appears to me that some works succeed in transcending their condition as an object of spectacle, while others fully embrace it. In order to differentiate the two positions, recourse to Debord’s writings is incongruous, but inevitably illuminating. Taking this premise as a point of departure, I will venture into the field of content analysis and the presentation context of Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s light sculpture titled Articulated Intersect. Relational Architecture 18 (2011).

Lozano-Hemmer’s work, presented as part of the Triennale québécoise 2011, was displayed at the Place des Festivals, a public space adjacent to the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal (MACM), during the fall of 2011. It was comprised of eighteen searchlight projectors (each emitting 10,000 watts), and allowed visitors to control the direction of the projectors by way of six lever-controls put at the public’s disposal at the north and south side of the Place.

Articulated Intersect. Relational Architecture 18  is part of a series of monumental interactive installations that display searchlights in urban space; a global project that the artist initiated in 1999 at Zocalo Square in Mexico City. Various versions were subsequently shown in Lyon (2003), Dublin (2004), Toronto (2007) and Vancouver (2010). The searchlights selected for these interventions are the same ones that the US government uses to patrol its shared border with Mexico. Through this détournement of surveillance technologies, these works are often viewed as an invitation to re-appropriate public space. The title of the series Relational Architecture, also introduces the idea of a relation between people and  things. While the public’s action was mediated through a device in the preceding works of the series (computer, cell phone, etc.) the Montreal version proposed a physical action. One had to be onsite to contribute to the work. In commenting on this approach the artist said: “What I sought to do for the first time was to materialize this fleeting matter that is light into something sculptural, something closer to the human body […]. I like to represent, to play, so that people, who are in a public place, stop, forget their everyday activities and speak to one another.”2

In his 1967 book, Debord addresses the question of “being together” in a society that he views as being dominated by spectacle: “Spectators are linked solely by their one-way relationship to the very center that keeps them isolated from each other. The spectacle thus reunites the separated, but it reunites them only in their separateness.”3

Applied to Articulated Intersect. Relational Architecture 18, this observation stimulates reflection on the specifically relational dimension. Is it in fact possible that it provides an experience in which viewers who partake in the work are united “only in their separateness”? On the site  the participants seemed to be completely obsessed by the control of the immense searchlight beams. Heads turned skyward to observe their own actions, or a pose struck for a photo to immortalize the moment, few among the participants seemed to pay attention to the other lever-control stations or the overall image unfolding in the sky. Viewed from a distance, the work was undoubtedly the result of a collective effort. Viewed from its origin, this situation where people “speak to one another” was nowhere to be found.

The use of the projectors, the main function of which is to monitor the border between the US and Mexico, added a strong symbolic charge to Vectorial Elevation, which was presented in Mexico City at the turn of the millennium. People hailing from eighty-nine countries participated in its unfolding thanks to a specially designed website, which contributed to this questioning of notions related to borders, separation and encounter. When works from the same series were presented in Europe,  they were compared to the “cathedral of light” developed by Albert Speer, the head architect of the Nazi party. During the party’s night rallies, Speer positioned 130 military searchlight projectors along Zeppelin esplanade, thereby creating an immense dome of light which both revealed and camouflaged the underlying reality guiding its organization. In the context of Montreal, what meaning resides in Lozano- Hemmer’s work? The MACM website indicates that it “was specially designed for the Place des Festivals,”4 a central assembly spot of the Quartier des spectacles (QDS). In this case the searchlights could perhaps be seen as a reference to show spotlights, but what do they bring to view?

Let us take a brief look at the history of this area. In 1893, the opening of the Monument National coincided with the emergence of Montreal’s Red Light district. In the following decades, the Faubourg Saint Laurent became renown for its gambling salons, cabarets and of course, its brothels. This state of affairs continued until the 1950’s, when the  Drapeau municipal government set out to clean up the city and shut down many of these venues. The Place des Arts was inaugurated in 1963, an event that triggered numerous debates about its perceived elitist character.5 Then in the years 1980 to 1990 the area surrounding Place des Arts came into its own as a major site for creative activities. The Wilder and Blumenthal buildings, those at 10 Ontario and 1591 Clark, among others, housed hundreds of artist studios and the offices of cultural organizations. However, in 2003, at the time the QDS was set up officially, the residents of the above mentioned buildings were evicted. In what is now presented as the “centre of the cultural metropolis,” there is scarcely any creative activity left in comparison with the prior decade, and there is an ongoing effort to rid the area of the last vestiges of the Red Light district. Given that spectacle’s function is to “bring history to be forgotten in culture,”6 the searchlights that the light sculpture displays, though they bring nothing to view, are nevertheless not at all ineffective. Quite to the contrary, they contribute to keeping the history of the site that hosts them in the shadows. What’s more, they confirm its new program resolutely oriented to entertainment.

It appears that the work, which was specifically designed for the Place des Festivals, unfortunately does not have as strong a critical force as previous works in the series and that it operates entirely within the system of spectacle. Given this situation, one can question the MACM’s decision to acquire the work, notably so as to present it anew and to loan it to other institutions.

The efforts of the museum to go beyond its walls and encounter a broader public is undoubtedly praiseworthy. Issues pertaining to audience renewal and the democratization of cultural institutions are hardly new and continue to be a pressing current concern. However, the shoe pinches in regard to the quality of the contents. Just how far can the institution go with respect to presenting works that are more accessible without compromising its mandate to support the main tendencies in contemporary art. The recent changes in the MACM’s staff and board of directors indicate a desire to present exhibitions to a broader public,7 following the change the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts has taken in the last few years with its temporary exhibitions. In this context, Articulated Intersect is part of what seems to be a growing trend, for better or for worse.

Translated by Bernard Schütze

 

Josianne Poirier lives and works in Montreal. A doctoral candidate in art history at Université de Montréal, she holds a BA in art history and an MA in urban studies from the Institut national de la recherche scientifique. She is interested in the relation between art, culture and urban space as viewed through themes such as cultural neighbourhoods, public art and the image of the city.

 


  1. Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle [1967], trans. Ken Knabb, Rebel Press (London), 2004, 119 p.
  2. Éric Clément, « Triennale d’art contemporain : Lozano-Hemmer ouvre les célébrations », La Presse, October 1st, 2011.
  3. Guy Debord, Op cit., The Society of the Spectacle, p. 29.
  4. For more on this subject see: Jonathan Cha, « La construction et le mythe de la Place des Arts: Genèse de la place montréalaise », JSSAC, vol. 31, no 2, p. 37-64.
  5. In italics in Guy Debord’s original text, op cit., p. 107.
  6. Leah Sandals, « MAC Montreal Rocked By Staff Departures & Plans To Cut More », Canadian Art, 5 avril 2013, en ligne/5 April 2013, online at: http://www.canadianart.ca/news/2013/04/05/three-depart-macm-with- staff-cuts-en-route/, consulté le 4 mai 2013.