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Interview with Art-Act

French artists Gaspard and Sandra Bébié-Valérian, laureates of the 2015 American Residencies program of the Institut Français, were invited to Centraltrak, the University of Texas at Dallas Artists Residency, in November and December 2015.

Gaspard and Sandra Bébié-Valérian work together, under the name Art-Act, in the digital, electronic and media arts. The duo has collaborated since 2003 under this entity. Their installations take on issues such as energy, food, freedom, health, natural and industrial resources. From their point of view, the merging of technology and modern life represents a strong paradigm of the constituent powers in our society. Experimenting and using the "game" as a way to open debates is an important production mode for the artists. They believe that this technology/pastime can be utilized to connect people to one another and to enable meaningful actions and contributions to the world’s problems.


Sylvie Christophe, Cultural attaché in Houston (SC): You are laureates of the American residency program of the Institut Français. How did this residency project in Dallas start and how does it fit in your creative path?

Gaspard & Sandra Bébié-Valérian (GSBV): Four years ago already, through a common acquaintance, we were put in contact with Frank Dufour, associate professor at the Arts, Technologies and Emerging Communication (ATEC) department at the University of Texas at Dallas. At that time, we had considered working in a residency that would enable us to benefit from spending time at Centraltrak, an art center and artists residency program of the University of Texas. Due to a lack of resources, this project did not materialize. It was only with the call for application for the American residency program of the Institut Français that we revived this idea.

However, over the last few years, our process had significantly evolved, and our work was leaning more and more towards environmental issues.

We therefore thought a project that could explore and study the impact of some technologies on the environment but also on the perception by its citizens.


SC: Why choose the theme of shale gas extraction in Texas as a starting point for this project?

GSBV: While working on writing a project that explores the notion of catastrophe and the transformation of landscapes, we saw the issue of fracking and shale gas emerge. This information seemed exemplary since it touched a trending topic in the United States, but also because it related to strong societal and environmental challenges present in France as well.


In several cities around Dallas, on which many wells have been exploited, abnormal seismic activity appeared. Regular earthquakes of low magnitude now punctuate the everyday life of these cities. From this observation and the continuity of the main ideas that shape our work, we have decided to create a specific installation, reacting and feeding itself from the local context, extending in narrative form a situation that could nearly be considered as science-fiction. Namely, man is now capable of producing earthquakes and everyone must live with it.


SC: Has the project of visual and sound installation "What Is Rising" evolved during your residency in Dallas? To what extent and for what reasons?

GSBV: Indeed the project has evolved and it is undoubtedly the interest of a residency as it allows time for reflection, research and debate. We met several people directly involved in these issues (journalists, scientists, citizens) but we have been in contact with a culture that was, in principle, unusual to us. It was therefore interesting to observe cultural differences and various points of view within the communities themselves. Surprisingly, many people remained uninformed or detached from issues related to exploitation of shale gas, while many others, however, harbored a critical look at its ins and outs.


How to include all this research and viewpoints in a single installation and process, the complexity of the subject without making it too confusing or too direct? We quickly decided to design this project as a performance, which does not exclude the possibility of working with an installation format, but makes the experience we wanted to develop more alive, more immediate.


SC: Which contacts did you have with the scientific community in Dallas to set-up the project?

GSBV: Rather informal and regular meetings were organized thanks to Frank Dufour and Roger Malina. For example, we were able to meet the curators of the Perot Museum with its entire floor dedicated to hydraulic fracturing. We also participated in one of the Watering Hole discussions organized by Roger Malina, we met with students and teachers working at the intersection of art and science. Through Heyd Fontenot, we exchanged some words with Laray Polk, journalist and artist who worked on the nuclear issue and recommended us a number of people to meet.


SC: What is your working method as a duo?

GSBV: We have been working together for over ten years now and we can never accurately define the way in which we will proceed. For the project in Dallas, we had long periods of consultation, discussion and research. We studied vastly a particular climatological and social phenomenon of the 30s in the US, the Dust Bowl. This follows a period of extensive agriculture policy completely drying up the land, so that the successive storms turned them into desert, causing an exodus of several million Americans. Then, while Sandra was creating the project’s narrative framework, I was commissioned to design an automated, electronic device. I was helped by Jean-Paul Petillon, electronics engineer, in order to adapt a seismograph to our needs. It was about reading seismic data in real time and writing it on the paper roll. If the project, in its technical nature does not seem to be obvious, it nevertheless represented a real difficulty.

We first tried to find earthquakes whose data was sufficiently detailed to manage a defined temporality. I designed the entire earthquake, following precisely the thread of the story, the narrative. For this I used modulated white noise to create a spectrogram (the shape of a sound) and we transcribed it as data resampled it for a coherent rendering.

Then, we had to work on the performance and spatialization. We were able to work in an anechoic chamber, a space devoted to sound recordings, and implemented a configuration made of multiple speakers allowing spatialized sound study. It was about making the audience feel the earthquake without assaulting them. I handled the live sound part while Sandra was in charge of the visual part, using both images and video archives but also animated mediums made from surveys of underground layers prospects from the petroleum industry.


SC: Where and how did you produce the sound recordings used for the performance?

GSBV: I used synthetic sounds with Pure Data but also created live recordings, especially under freeways and city structures that produced atypical vibrations, air conditioning motors and late afternoon rumbles when roads filled up with vehicles, in industrial environments, cracking, grinding and engine noises. Also, recording sessions were made in nature for wind, specific vibrations, bumping, rocks, and dry leaves. Lastly, we devoted specific times to record the narrators’ voices at the university with Hunter Scott and Gary Hardee.


SC: Was the choice of images made on site or did you have access to an image stock for this project?

GSBV: The research and documentation offered a large panel of images that could be used and reused from online sources, amateur videos, but also archives, in particular for the part on the Dust Bowl or the destruction of Galveston. It was all about selecting them in coherence with the narrative. If the narration is fictive, it is important to use images from reality. Using readymade images is often part of our process, because they are mediatized, they circulate and give a common vision. Other than images, there is also text derived from comments on social media. These sometimes extreme reactions reflect the passionate aspect of the topic.


SC: How did the narrative writing process go? Is the writing itself concomitant to the sound harvesting and visual collage?

GSBV: The sound creation includes a narrative by two characters, well operators, who have the mission of ensuring the proper functioning, the drilling maintenance. Their narratives, intimate and rather different from one another, share about their experience and vision on what they are living and how the catastrophe will transform their lives. Written by us, these narratives combine real testimonials, extrapolations and metaphysic thoughts on the world. The narrative unveiled during the performance is also a reflection on our own relationship with the technology, energy, globalization and automation of a civilization.


SC: Can you describe more precisely the technical installation used for this performance, especially the live use of the seismograph and its role in the visual and audio device?

GSBV: For this project, we created our own earthquake graphs to transmit in real time to a seismograph whose objective is to write the data of earthquakes but also operate in real time a set of constituent sounds of the earthquake written on the paper reel. Thus, we can consider that the seismographic readings have become elements of a sound composition, like a musical score. The plotted curves are a direct transcription of the narrative but also of the seismic activity that, progressively, structures the space of the performance.

The seismograph is highlighted in the space and starts precisely at the same time as the video or sound system. The performance lasts 25 minutes and involves two performers dealing with spatial audio (six speakers and two bass-boxes) and visual creation in real time respectively.


SC: Do you plan on showing this work in France and abroad?

GSBV: We are currently working on the French version and found our two actors for voiceover. Basically, this project is completed and only requires a few adjustments and our configuration allows quick changes. We are in contact with several French institutions and hope that this project finds its audience, especially with the recent court decision; giving back to Total the opportunity to explore in the Southeast region suggesting intensification since the license only covers authorization to explore and not to exploit. A national debate soon to address the issue of shale gas would not be surprising and our project could be relevant.


SC: What is your assessment of your stay in Dallas?

GSBV: It has been an intense time because we evolved in an unusual environment, with different bearings and a different language. We were also ambitious to lead the project while wishing to make the most of networking opportunities and also discover the American culture and its diversity in Texas. That said, Frank Dufour and Heyd Fontenot were excellent points of contact. We benefited from great conditions overall and the time spent with the audience enabled us to collect excellent feedback, for the most part. It appears that those who attended were not so accustomed to this type of design and a rich discussion followed. Presumably, the issue of fracking seems important to Americans and the way we handled it, distanced and fiction-based, seems to have affected them.


For more information on the project What Is Rising, visit their website.