Ariane Michel

Revealing other Presences

Ariane Michel, Les yeux ronds, 2006

Undoing our anthropized visions of the world has become so central to the foremost thinking in the realm of contemporary art that this decentering seems to have become both its role and primary mission. Through her films and installations, the artist Ariane Michel invites us to relocate, to move outside of ourselves so as to modify our perceptions and wander the world as an other. In her pieces she notably uses animals, plants, stones, and the force of the elements, so as to create many new centers of the world and perceptive possibilities. Using tools from the field of cinema and by involving the living, she incarnates in both an artistic and immersive fashion a disanthropization of the world which manipulates the perception of time and shifts points of view by involving the spectator in new relationships. Overwhelming our imagination, she invites us to recreate the world by repositioning us as one element among many others.

Men's phantom limbs

Your work often induces an out-of-body experience, inviting the public to become part of an other, a stranger. In this way one can inhabit the envelope of a walrus, an owl, a spider, a mite, but also a rock or a riverbank. What are the origins of this approach?

I believe that I have always lived with the violent sensation that we, human and urban beings of Europe, live with an inadequate definition of who we are. That a bubble of rationality isolates us from the rest of the living world in multiple ways (religious, philosophical) and that, despite all of the power that our particularity as rational beings seems to offer us, paradoxically we find ourselves incapacitated. Abstracted from the rest of the living, we were missing roots. Not so much places of origin, but rather capillary systems, entanglements and continuities, ramifications shared with places, things, and beings. Phantom limbs that flail in the dark and that, to a certain extent, I propose to make grow back.

Intuitively at first, and then in a more and more precise fashion, I embarked upon a series of works that allowed me to approach other “centers of the world” so as to project and weave them together, beginning with all of these places that are not us, a kind of polycentric and shared web of reality.

Ariane Michel, Sur la terre, 2006, video

The point of view of the other beings

What I could call “my first artwork” from this point of view corresponds to the first time that I was confronted with the need to recreate a connection between a spectator and a landscape so as to make them feel the strangeness that reigns after heavy flooding. That day, a dog that accompanied me—half-wolf, half-griffon—popped up in the frame and I needed him to help the spectator to dive into the film and recreate the place around them by modifying their perception. Stray-wolf, this character from the realm of cinema was minimal and absolute: a vehicle for the body to be integrated through thought, allowing one to wander through the place, listening, ears pricked, on all fours to some extent, and to feel the presence of things. A privileged tool for the relocation of oneself that opened up a huge field of enquiry: we could explore the world as the other.

This first film set off a long series of artworks that used animals, but also plants, minerals, and the power of the elements. Thousands of centers of the world became possible. Cinema is one of the ideal means for projection in itself, and I really like the way in which it almost allows us to confuse our corporeal envelope with that of another. By using codes that we usually apply to human characters (for example shot-reverse shot, or the “establishment” of a character), I could create dialogues and perceptive trajectories between various entities, animated or not, that became us. An owl and the place de la Concorde, rocks and a shore that scientists step onto, a fox and outdoor-cinema-goers, mosquitos and explorers. Each time, through an increasing number of journeys, a whole reality is woven and deployed, charged with our presence, in which the hierarchy between things is upset and reestablished. Between where and who we are, I was able in this way to forge a series of physical relationships of perception for the spectator who slowly recreated a new context for being in the world.

Ariane Michel, The Screening, 2007, video

By filming from the point of view others, I tried to “disanthropize” our point of view, to “deterritorialize” us, borrowing a term from Gilles Deleuze. This attempt effectively aims to move beyond this narcissistic “I” that goes back to “I think therefore I am in the world” which permeates our culture and deprives us somewhat of our limbs and our sensations. To a certain extent, one could say that my work is similar to that of a shaman. Video, performance, encounters with things and objects are potions for me, magical products. By allowing a succession of repositionings as different living beings in the midst of others, they make it possible to reshape the maps of the world that line the depths of our subconscious.

Raising awareness of an other reality through art

Vous parvenez à incarner et rendre crédible cette aventure de désanthropocentrisation. L’imprévisible, qui fait irruption lorsque le vivant entre en chair, en élytres et en plumes dans votre œuvre, est-il devenu un outil de création ?

De fait, je travaille à reformuler la sensation de notre présence et notre relation au présent. Dans ce contexte, la notion de ce qui se déroule est primordiale. L’impondérabilité du geste d’un animal ou du surgissement d’une vague en donne la teneur. Il s’agit de rompre l’atemporalité de notre bulle. L’incertitude de ce qui advient nous accroche au déroulement des choses, qu’il soit spontané ou provoqué.

Avec les outils du cinéma, cela revient aussi à s’attacher à la notion de suspense. Non pas un suspense intense dans lequel on éprouverait de la peur, mais un fil d’inquiétude délicat qui entretient notre position d’être « aux aguets » et nous lie à la suite des choses ; c’est pourquoi j’utilise tant cette dimension narrative, proprement « fictionnelle », et pourquoi elle s’arrime souvent à la relation minimale d’une bête à une situation. Devant un film, nous avons quelquefois davantage la sensation d’être vivants, d’éprouver des émotions ou une certaine forme d’existence, que dans la réalité. Outre ce que je cherche dans une cartographie inversée du réel, il m’intéresse aussi de réintroduire cette intensité de l’expérience fictionnelle dans la réalité sensible du vécu.

À ce titre, mon projet The Screening, une mise en abyme qui introduit l’espace-temps d’un film au milieu d’une forêt, est certainement emblématique : à Bâle, à l’occasion de la foire, j’ai convié le public à une projection nocturne en forêt. Après quelques minutes à traverser les bois à la lueur de lampes-torche, les gens, installés dans une clairière aménagée en cinéma, découvraient un film qui mettait en abyme la situation même. Il commençait comme une sorte de fiction animalière, au milieu des bêtes sauvages dérangées dans la nuit par l’arrivée d’êtres humains qui justement s’installent pour regarder un film. Puis les animaux s’approchaient de la clairière… Le public pouvait ainsi s’observer lui-même au travers d’un prisme déformant. Dans le passé, puis, progressivement, dans le temps réel. Jusqu’à une sorte de climax où tout se réunissait dans un accord absolu du film et de la réalité : alors qu’un hibou regardant l’assistance apparaissait à l’image ébloui par une lampe, un homme se levait « en vrai » et brandissait une torche, laissant découvrir le même hibou, perché sur un arbre. L’espace-temps fictif mais hyper-réaliste du monde de la forêt se confondait avec le monde réel de ces gens assis là. L’expérience, jouant sur la dichotomie fiction-réalité, les avait réunies. Lorsque les lumières se sont rallumées, ce fut comme si les spectateurs se réveillaient. Après s’être sentis relativement inconfortables dans cette nuit humide et pleine de craquements, ils semblaient détendus, heureux, et avaient envie de rester là. C’est comme s’ils avaient partagé un secret, comme si le dispositif les avait conciliés avec l’ombre.

Ariane Michel, The Screening, 2007, video

Whether it be in Meuse with a public used to forests, or in a park in New York, this performance acts like a hypnotic bath that reformulates the relationship with the place. Here, the manipulation of the audience goes further, but in most of my projects the situation cannot be separated from the work. It is that my work is a matter of relationships and is perhaps related to dreams. I try to create moments that resemble those soft sighs where, with one eye half open, reality begins to resonate with a sort of “reverse” version of itself.

In this case, the shift in one’s point of view cannot be separated from a manipulation of time that summons something other than the unfolding. By introducing other centralities, but also the off-camera and arcs in the course of what is happening, I attempt to convoke a layering of space-time, to densify our relationship with that which is there on almost quantic scales.

The place of Man among the other beings

Concerning animals, there is this intensity of uncertainty, but something else is happening, which is just as determining. Jacques Derrida said it very well by taking the example of his cat who saw him naked: the animal watches “since time.” A time that is prelinguistic, pre-civilizational, a time before us that undresses History for us. A scale of millennia emerges. In fact, I have been constantly creating minimal tales located in pre- or post-worlds. They function as creation stories or mythical tales.

You call upon anthropologists like Tim Ingold and Philippe Descola. Is your objective to de-culture, to free your audience from a European cultural burden so as to invite them to reconsider their position in the world?

Yes. Philippe Descola used very simple and very strong words to describe this rupture that the term nature itself creates in our society and that of which it is symptomatic. Something that it did recently. Other thinkers today seek to question or go beyond this organization of the segmented world that, placing the human at its center, crystalized in the cartesian seventeenth century. In fact, I act as an artis. My task is to stick my hands into the very foundations of our perceptions themselves and of our imagination, and I am only a symptom of our society. I think that today people feel the need to perceive things otherwise. One could say that I place myself in the wake of the movements initiated in the seventies by the hippies, ecofeminism, or Starhawk.

Ariane Michel, Sur la terre, 2005, video

Our individualistic thinking leads us for example to look at a tree as an isolated individual, whereas it is quite probable that trees located in a same region communicate, acting together like a sole body. Rather than basing our individualism on the rest of the world, we could take inspiration from the ways of being of that which surrounds us, imagining ourselves within our species as part of a whole. A pack, a gorgonian coral, a forest. Considering the human, physically, as being part of a living whole that allows one to reconsider the social animal that we are. Trees, minerals, the elements, and ourselves, united in a single global organism, in the same movement in perpetual becoming.

I do not wish however to make any value judgements and do not qualify our cultural baggage as a “burden.” Rather than practicing a militant art, I prefer to speak to subconsciousnesses, to reshape sensations, to create imaginations and new bases.

What can be learned by studying Man as if he were an unknown animal?

To shoot your feature film Les Hommes, you boarded the Tara, a vessel dedicated to research and the environmental protection, to accompany a scientific expedition to Greenland. What were you looking for in this meeting of disciplines? Did any conflict arise between your vision of beings, both living and inanimate, but always “possessing a soul” and the Cartesian point of view of the scientists?

I sought to film a first meeting between animals and men in a deserted landscape, and it had to be humans practicing the landscape in a relationship that was intense and necessary. Even though the choice of this particular voyage was the result of a timely combination of circumstances, the fact that it was with scientists made perfect sense to me: I have always been fascinated by the grandeur of the universes that seem to open up the sometimes microscopic points of reality that science explores, and at the same time I have always been skeptical and distracted as to this extreme place given over to the explanation of things, as if the fact of wanting to understand at any cost prevents us from simply grasping what is right in front of us.

I set off on the expedition with the idea of turning the scientists’ procedures of observation back on themselves. This opened up a whole aesthetic field to me: made free by this idea of a protocol, I could become removed from my own self, and fuse with my instruments and become a pure prism. I think that in this way I managed to observe humans as animals that I had never seen before.

As to the human relationships with the scientists and the friction between our different positions, I was perhaps more surprised than they were. Certainly, the position that I took, based on a kind of silence and a total absence of questions may have unsettled them at first, as they were more accustomed to reporter-interviewers that sought to uncover the details of their thinking. But they quickly recognized that like them I set regular and systematic framed traps to capture the smallest of their gestures. Little by little, they recognized themselves in my attitude and accepted to play with me.

With regard to the film, to my great surprise, they quite liked it. Quite a lot, even. Though they remain rationalist in their approach as researchers, they don’t have a less magical relationship with the world. Those who go out into the field love more than anything else “to be,” and this is what the film proposes.

Later on, Philippe Descola confused me when he spoke to me about Indians’ “naturalistic knowledge,” something that was interwoven with their conception of the world. Awareness and knowledge of other species with which they share a presence in a given territory contributes to this very strong human relationship that they have with each thing. In fact, scientists are probably the people who are most aware of the infinitesimal existences that surround us. The world is filled with centers for them, and there must be times when they project themselves onto them. Basically, there probably isn’t any antinomy between science and representation. We would certainly gain from becoming a little more naturalist, in such a way that we become part of the rest of the world in our imagination and open ourselves up to other perceptions.

This article was initially published in Stream 04 - The Paradoxes of the living in November 2017.

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