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Paris Réseau: (Net)work in progress

by Karen O’Rourke


1. Background

“Paris Réseau” was originally a five-day event which took place in March, 1994 at the Paris Video Library: moving bodies drawing a virtual map of the city in real time. This map represented the itineraries of several Art-Réseaux group members as they left the Video Library in the center of Paris to return home toward the periphery. The "artist-reporters" used cameras to chart their trips; upon arrival, they digitized and sent the pictures by modem to the "ground crew" at the Video Library, who integrated them into an interactive animation.

To form a backdrop against which this action would take place, I had asked participants to describe the places in Paris where they used to live as well as their most frequent destinations from that period. The itineraries were then photographed --interpreted-- by another member of the group. The soundtrack consisted of interviews with the protagonists, as they pored over the photographer's pictures. The approach was somewhat anthropological. How do we remember these everyday itineraries from the past? How does someone else go about photographing them?

The next step was to further refine the material gathered to shape it into something perceptible, comprehensible, what Duchamp has called a "transsubstantiation of inert matter" into art. Or to put it more modestly, it was decided to make a CD-Rom. Several artists participated in this first version, which was shown in São Paulo in 1995 at the Museum of Contemporary Art. We chose to focus on a few itineraries, each of which was given a more extensive treatment. This piece marked a turning point in that here we began to move away from our original concern with process to address the issue of creating an "object“.

As I became more interested in working this material into some kind of whole, I began exploring different ways of linking images, sound and text, with a view to developing a more effective screen-based interface which would offer users different possibilities for interaction. Since then the piece has incorporated more and more fictional elements. The first experimental work I realized alone was a very simply structured web site. The city was designed as a series of juxtaposed fragments: fragments of body parts, fragments of texts, fragments of itineraries you could explore by clicking on words. Sometimes the links were terms which appeared to be significant, such as place names, sometimes not. Why not follow the word "three"? Three knuckles, three times, three o’clock, three husky fellows...

2. The CD-Rom

In its present version, the Paris Réseau CD-Rom is a multimedia "artist's book". My goal was to set up a polyphonic structure in which sound and imagery would complete each other, in which artwork and process would come together, in which the viewer could become engaged at several levels.
Paris Network assembles photographs, sound samples, animations and texts to form a composite, layered image of the city, combining digitized traces of physical places and people with information garnered from individual and collective memory.

As the map turns around in a spiral movement, you seem to move in, from one zone to another, toward the subject, but as you get closer, you begin to lose your bearings. In each zone, you explore the city differently. Four entrances, four ways of looking, four structural devices. You will always have, even as you move around, a fragmentary view, evoking a vast, more complete "hors-champ", which always seems out of reach. You enter as if you were breaking in.

Each of the four parts has its own system of navigation; it’s up to the viewer to discover the rules. 1. Six Itineraries. 2. Jogging in the Roquette Square. 3. A Voyage Around my Courtyard. 4. Erasing a Billboard. In one, the focus is more on visual perception, in another, you are asked to imagine people and things you don't see, the third allows you to explore and the fourth to tinker with the images on the screen. A fifth zone, accessible from within the others, is both navigational tool and urban perspective

2.1. Six Itineraries (the Net)

The first entrance, the map, or the net, leads to six narratives with minimal interactivity. Each itinerary comprises a loop so as to describe an eternal return. It is based on the Surrealists' idea that objective details in the city echo our unconscious state of mind. We keep going back, retracing our footprints, returning to the same places, like Restif de la Bretonne, the eighteenth century diarist, circling round and round the Ile Saint-Louis. However each time we return to a place, our experience of it is different. Is it we who have changed, or it? "We enter into the rivers, which always remain the same, however waters and other waters always arrive." (Heraclitus). One day Restif found that his wife and daughter had preceeded him, erasing the graffiti he had made the day before..

.2.2. Jogging in the Roquette Square (the Maze)

Gilbertto is jogging in the Roquette Square. Where is that? In the prison courtyard or the public gardens? Daffodils and concrete, narrow sinuous paths at times almost entirely walled in. In the distance you can hear, but not see, children playing. Other sounds are present intermittently : a runner's feet pounding the pavement, leaves crunching underfoot, a girl's voice chanting a nursery rhyme.
You, the viewer, adopt the jogger’s point of view, choosing your own rhythm. If you "gobble up asphalt": the voices will interrupt each other, if you move more slowly, you can eavesdrop. Even so, the statements are often fragmentary. People tend to echo one another's comments, putting them into a different perspective. A story can be begun in one place and finished elsewhere. If you return to a particular spot, you probably won't hear the same remark, sometimes it is even another voice speaking. Dialogues occur in French or English randomly. At various times you can call up other points of view by clicking in the middle of the screen.

Time passes as you explore the Roquette. During the day there is no way out. As dusk approaches, the joyous Sunday afternoon crowd gives way to individual voices. Park visitors chat about holiday plans as they watch their children play. Or are the voices those of Roquette inmates lying in their beds after lights out, recounting imaginary vacations: a Sunday outing in the Fontainebleau forest, a trip to Tunisia? Everyone evokes with equanimity the Friday night traffic jams on the expressways leading out of Paris.

Night falls over the garden. Vague silhouettes appear here and there: bushes? park benches? Occasionally a prisoner cries out in her sleep. No one would dream of calling the night warden; she'll just have to sweat it out. Elsewhere, a small child declares calmly: "Little Brown Bear is afraid of the dark. I think I'll turn out the light anyway, he'll be afraid anyway. All right, said the Mommy, you turn it off. He turned off the light, and then he shut the door, and then, he left Little Brown Bear all alone."

2.3. Journey Around My Courtyard

" He who looks in through an open window never sees as many things as he who looks at a closed window. " (Charles Baudelaire)

" It's very characteristic that it should be the very intimate and very mysterious influence that the weather exercises on men which should become the subject of their most vacuous conversations " (Walter Benjamin).

While the rain falls in the courtyard, a drizzle at times which can turn into a flood, or a driving rain which weakens after a while, gradually becoming a monotonous background hum, voices imagine different outings, everything we could do today (it's Sunday) but probably won't, since we stay at home. Perhaps we need courage to brave the " rotten weather " (rust, mildew, chipped paint, " vanities "). Colors : every nuance of gray, the courtyard walls were originally painted pink and pastel green, they now reveal the dirty tones of concrete underneath, the surface sometimes wet, sometimes not. Time is dilated, the weather freakish.
The first image contains a number of hot spots. A click on one type of object modifies the picture, on another it brings a new image, on a third, a sound or an animation. We hear bits and pieces of monologues, people discussing movies they’ve seen, plays, exhibitions (" but there are so many of them, and they are all interesting! " protests a woman’s voice)... The view from the windows shifts: we're looking out over São Paulo, or taking a walk in a garden somewhere south of Lyon. Sometimes we approach the window, and open it to see the rain falling, the shutters batting in the wind. After each excursion, we return inside once more, facing the closed windows. It is nighttime. Everything is quiet.

2.4. The Injured Billboard (the Palimpsest)

At first the screen shows a hand holding a dust rag. This is followed by one or more views chosen at random among the seventy-two details of a billboard photo. To explore this zone you must erase the image by holding down the mouse and moving the rag over the screen. If you continue to rub a particular area even after the first picture has been gummed out, you'll begin to remove the second image in the series, which then reveals the third, like layers in a palimpsest. If you keep rubbing in the same place, you'll wear a hole all the way down to the last image in the series. When the entire screen has been erased down to the bottom layer, a new fragment appears to explore.

The subject of the billboard itself is minimal: three young women wearing bras stand together; one is looking down, two are looking at the viewer; all three are framed in a medium shot. Each detail covers up a series of other images, which develop different themes: for example, the implications of the models' relative positions in the picture ("two's company, three's a crowd"); the theme of vanities, the hidden wound (in one spot the poster is ripped open: through the gaping hole we can see the wooden framework behind it). The poster is transformed into a living person while you and I, scanned, x-rayed and "sonographed", have become pictures.

The soundtrack comes from another modern palimpsest, the telephone answering machine: the voices jostle, overlap; today’s messages cover each other imperfectly, other voices emerge out of the distant past. The simulated computer voice giving apparently precise information (Tuesday 3:44 p.m.) just emphasizes this discrepancy: which Tuesday is that? Tuesday of last week or a Tuesday in October five years ago?

2.5. The Navigator (the Web)

The navigator can be reached from within the other spaces. This control panel parodies the well-known Web browser, "Netscape“. Alert messages, dialog boxes, and other familiar windows spring up in different places, following one another in random order. Some propose a choice (Do you wish to allow this cookie to be set?), others provide information on what is supposedly happening (receiving message, looking up host etc.). If you try to close one, several others shoot up immediately like the heads on the Hydra of Lerna. Accumulation, information overload, frenetic activity: all attributes of cyber city. You undergo this assault until you decide to click somewhere. From here you can go anywhere else; each destination can be reached in several ways. While this redundance would seem to guarantee the transmission of the information (communications theory holds that a message transmitted simultaneously by several canals is more likely to be received), this overabundance of signals also confuses us. The more we see, the less we retain.

3. Content or contents?

Does the city "inform" (give form to) the archive or does the archive inform the city (insofar as it shapes our experience of it) ? Is one a container and the other its content(s)? In what ways do (digital) images shape the content (our perception) of the city ? In what ways do networks, electronic or not, transform not only the content of individual art works, but the very nature of art itself?
Since this project was begun, the cranes and bulldozers have moved on and the Grande Bibliothèque in Paris is finally open to the public, road construction crews have put in over fifty kilometers of bike lanes (maybe a hundred by now), Isabelle has moved again, taking her mannequin and her ironing board, she’s now the mother of a baby boy, Gilbertto has gone back to Brazil... All the while, "Paris-Réseau" continues its sedimentation, accumulating like Borges' labyrinth, "infinite series of expanding, vertiginous network of convergent, divergent and parallel times".


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