Boris Debackere is an artist and sound designer; he teaches at the Sint Lukas Academy in Brussels , where he leads the Transmedia department.
He studied at the Image and Sound department at the music academy in The Hague , which trained a generation of artists who devote themselves to experimentations mixing image and sound and who work above all in the Netherlands and in the Flanders . This input was probably one of the experiences that brought him to “think in a multimedia way”, as he told us during our conversation.
He collaborated with several artists, among which Marnix De Nijs (with whom he created the “Run Motherfucker Run” interactive installation), Brecht Debackere (with whom he created the “Rotor” live cinema performance”), Herman Asselberghs (with whom he won the Transmediale prize for “Proof of life” in 2007). He works and lives among Brussels , Antwerp , Rotterdam and Amsterdam .
Among his latest works there is “Probe“, which was presented in Montevideo during the Sonic Acts XII festival (February 2008), in a collective project called “The Cinematic Experience”. Our interview starts exactly from “Probe” and the “Cinematic Experience“. “The Cinematic Experience” is the title of a study that was carried out in 2007 by Debackere with the funds of the Sint Lukas Academy and then published with the same title in collaboration with Sonic Acts.
Lucrezia Cippitelli: I would like to talk first of all about “Probe”.
Boris Debackere: In the booklet that accompanies the installation, I describe “Probe” with its definition in the dictionary: ” noun, an unmanned exploratory spacecraft designed to transmit information about its environment”.
Lucrezia Cippitelli: In the same text you describe “Probe” as a work that deals with a medium: cinema. Which is its basic concept?
Boris Debackere: “Probe” is a metaphor of cinema: cinema as a space shuttle, or a probe you enter and you are completely separated from the external world. Suddenly, the huge screen you have in front of you disappears and becomes a sort of window to travel in time and space. And you sit in this vehicle, but the whole “trip” takes place in your brain: you concentrate with your mind with the screen that becomes invisible and everything that is projected on the screen puts your mind and imagination into action. The setting of the film is in your brain, not on the screen: it is part of the same dynamics of cinema, which stimulate your brain, the mechanism of your perceptive abilities.
“Probe” is this, it plays with your attention to the screen, which is constantly measured: your distance from the projection influences the generation of images and sound. The perception of the approaching is doubled: “Probe” let you make an experience that you can’t usually make with the human eye, but you can make only with the television camera: zooming. I think this aspect is fundamental, because we usually estimate the quality of a film according to its ability to lead us far away, we consider how much the shuttle has been able to make us wander in time and space. In other words, we judge the quality of the immersion. The immersion effect takes place when you can’t “feel yourself” there any longer, but you are completely absorbed in the film.
In this installation every step you take forward and backward has an instantaneous effect on the output that is projected on the screen. Because of the zoom effect, every move you make towards the screen is perceived as doubled, because you put an optical (of the video) and physical (you are approaching) zoom into action.
Lucrezia Cippitelli: A very interesting thing, in my opinion, is that whenever you near the projection, the sound disappears and only a white projection remains of the video. You think that if you draw nearer, you can understand what there is on the other side of the “window”, but, in front of you, you have, instead, only the screen and the white light of the video projector, you practically see only the medium.
Boris Debackere: It happens if you are very close to the screen, I mean, if you have your nose nearly attached to the screen: what is interesting is that a lot of spectators, when they understand the mechanism of the installation which is not taken for granted really do that, they touch with their nose the surface of this huge screen that is more than 6 metres large. For me it is amusing that I can make people do these things. However, above all, talking about contents, when you concentrate more on the screen, everything becomes empty and silent. Everything works only in your brain. And you don’t have to trigger the screen
Lucrezia Cippitelli: That is, everything disappears
Boris Debackere: The play disappears, it was only an illusion. At least, till you turn your back and you return to the entrance of the room and everything appears again.
Lucrezia Cippitelli: Something I have mentioned to you before, I find very interesting also the fact that on the day of the inauguration you had the words “interactive installation” removed from the caption at the entrance of your room. I read it in this way: if you use this word that refers so strongly to the context of New Media and of Media Art, you force the spectator to look more for the play than its content.
Boris Debackere: There are many ways to accost the matter of interactivity. You might say, for example, that also cinema is interactive. If there is a screen, but there isn’t any spectator in the cinema, can you say or not that there is a film? Each work needs a public. Think about a picture: the public look at it, they contemplate it: there is also an interaction between the spectator and the picture. The painter himself I am convinced of it thinks about the moment in which a watcher starts looking at the picture and when he/she finishes. On the other hand, as you say, “interactive installation” refers specifically to New Media. However, what is an interactive installation? A works that needs input from its user, which I don’t like at all, because you use the word “user” in relation to a work of art as if you were talking about a business context. The user, the consumer: suddenly, also the watchers of a work change their role and become users.
In any case, watchers have to do something: but is a very common event that, when someone enters the space of an installation of that kind, they don’t know well how to use it taking advantage from all its potentialities, because it’s something completely new. If the installation is complex enough (programming, audiovisual aids), if it’s strong enough, you always need some time to understand what to do, how to use it and surf it. I always give this example: Stradivarius makes a violin and says: “this is an interactive installation”. And it is that: there is wood, strings, a specific shape. “If you interact with it, it produces a sound”. Then he puts it on a pedestal and people come and start touching its strings and claim: “It’s true, it produces a sound!”. The problem, however, is that it takes many years to control this instrument and to be able to use it.
There is also a missing link in the matter of interaction. And I also wonder if people really want to interact with art. Certainly, if you want, instead, to create a videogame, for example, a tennis or ski simulator in which you are completely absorbed, this is something different. Even if complexity goes also for games: it’s difficult to reach a certain level and you have to learn how it works to be able to play it. And I’m not talking about videogames such as Pac Man, but about the latest games, which become more and more complex. It takes time to learn techniques. The question is: can you expect the same thing from the public? Of course, you could argue that also the public of Contemporary Art needs suitable intellectual tools to understand a work. However, can you really expect a physical ability?.
Lucrezia Cippitelli: When you talked about interaction and generic work of art, I thought inevitably about the “classic” examples of contemporary art. From the performances to the Action Kunst , where watchers have to take part in an action that is suggested by an artist, to the great classics of the installations or of the Happenings. Kaprow, the Fifties, and so on. They are interactive works, where nobody tries to understand how its mechanism works. In the places of Kaprow’s happenings, for example, where things “happen”. The audience only takes part in the “event” decided by the artist, without wondering how it works. Maybe it would be this way also in the context of Media.
Boris Debackere: I am convinced that every work is interactive. If you think about a group performing concerts, they certainly say that it’s better to play “live” because there is the “interaction” with the public. Even if the public, from the stage, seems only a huge black hole, because you are completely enveloped by light beams that blind you. But actually, something magic comes true, so you can define it interaction: does it exist or not? Is it real only in the musicians’ minds?
So the most important question is: is it really necessary to focus on the interaction or is it simply something that goes hand in hand with the concept of the work and it’s not its core? In general, we can say that every good technique is deeply hidden by its content. It works alone, you can’t see it. It’s invisible. We don’t think every second that we are breathing and our heart is beating. If I had been forced to interact lifelong, every second, with my heart, I wouldn’t have been able to do anything else .
Lucrezia Cippitelli: We often talked about the Black box and the relationship of “Probe” with this kind of space and the space of Cinema.
Boris Debackere: I don’t like “producing art for the Black box”. As I’m not interested in producing “interactive art”, however. It happens that this kind of installations has to stay in a Black box. If I see one of them in a gallery, in a museum or in a Biennale, I can’t understand at all why they have to stay there. I also expressly asked many people how much time they usually spend in such environment, if they see the video from the beginning to the end.
The average spectator enters, he/she passes through the black curtains or the “bric-à-brac” doors; he/she is in a room where there is a projector that probably has a colour predominance which is inappropriate for the video, a poor quality sound system and he/she sits on a wooden bench to watch a video that probably began a long time ago.
I am convinced that such situation doesn’t work at all. I wonder whether these artists that are presented in this way don’t actually dream of making films in Hollywood , but aren’t able to do it. It is said that someone summed the total hours of the videos of one of these biennial exhibitions .
Lucrezia Cippitelli: A review of Documenta XI from 2001 with the title “600 hours Documenta”, whose artistic director was Enwezor…
Boris Debackere: How can an exhibition model of this kind work? I think that the context of contemporary Art is based on a vertical perception and observation of the work. It has nothing to do with time, but with space. You sit in front of a picture or a sculpture and the perception is vertical: that is, time goes into action only if and when an interaction between the spectator and the work exists. It’s not an element of the work, but it’s something secondary that begins only in the relationship with the spectator. For a video, instead, spectators need a period of time that is fixed in advance: if time is missing, the video will become a still, a photograph. Suddenly, with the video, the element of time has been introduced in the context of contemporary Art, but the public still wander from a Black box to another in the same way they watch a picture. It’s something completely different from when you go, for example, to the cinema and you know you’ll stay there for an hour and a half or two hours: you choose the film you want to watch, you try to arrive on time and you sit till the end of the film. Nobody behaves like that for a video in a Biennale. Maybe someone persists, because he/she wants to be taken in earnest by the others but the time devoted to a video in the context of art is not usually the specific time of the work.
By the way, I’ve always found very interesting people’s serious faces when they watch “Art” Talking about “Probe”, anyway, I prefer to define the installation “reactive” than “interactive”. A conversation is interactive, but not “Probe”. The spectators that watch it behave like with a Black box: they enter, they lean against the wall at the end of the room and they wait, wait, wait. They don’t imagine that the work reacts and they have to cross a spatial boundary to start the reaction. During the performance in Montevideo , during the Sonic Acts festival, some spectators entered, they saw the first level of the video, in which a constant flow of images moving from left and right is accompanied by a very loud sound, and they went away without really seeing the work. From this point of view, “Probe” is in relation to the Black box, because somehow it plays with the expectations that the public usually have with this kind of spaces.
Lucrezia Cippitelli: But “Probe” has, above all, something to do with Cinema in general. And I dare say that cinema is one of your favourite topics, also taking into account other works of yours. I’m referring to “Rotor” live cinema (2005), which you created with Brecht Debackere, and the “Vortices” installation (2006).
Boris Debackere: I’m not interested in cinema in the sense of “making the more interesting film in the history”, but in its effect. In its influence on the past and present community and in our way of producing art and thinking in general. I’m interested in the immersion effect of cinema, which I think is one of the key factors of the success of this art that has also experienced the evolution of this medium during a century of life. I try to transfer these factors not in cinema, but in other kinds of environment. And this is the reason why I started a research project with the title “The cinematic experience”, which culminated in a homonymous book presented (and edited) to coincide with the Sonic Acts festival. I try to transfer the cinematic features of this medium in other possible forms in comparison with the cinema we know. I try not to imitate the cinema of the present, but to create the cinema of the future. I wonder how to create the same kind of cinematic experience that people live when they move in a dark room or stay in front of a projection.
“Vortices” is a pillar on which images move by rotating around it. It is a tribute to the Trajan’s column, which was the first visual narration of a story in western culture. It is a kind of comics. What was interesting is that the watcher had to go round the column to know the story, and watch its bas-reliefs. A narration that is told by means of images is very similar to cinema. “Vortices” worked on this concept, trying not to be interactive, but reactive.
The performances of live cinema like “Rotor” have this name because they have a connection with cinema in relation to the display mode: projection and sound. However, they probably have a much more deep link with the dream of performing live, in real time, volume and video, image and sound, together, by improvising as people improvise with musical instruments. It has much more to do with “coloured music” and with the research of synaesthesia. However, the idea of performing how music is played is predominant in comparison with the idea of performing “Indiana Jones 7” .
Lucrezia Cippitelli: However, when you were talking about “Rotor”, you told me that it’s a work which has to do with cinema, in particular with the sound of cinema.
Boris Debackere: If on one hand the performance is an important aspect, then the real question comes into play: after deciding how we want to create the work, we have to think about the content. And here cinema plays an important role, much more important than if we talk only about the setting of the performance: we tried to reproduce the “cinematic experience” with an abstract language. We removed any elements that could remind us of a Hollywood “icon”: dolls, weapons, cars, ships, explosions. We removed them, trying to create the same kind of experience, but in a completely abstract form. Therefore, there isn’t any traditional narration, on the contrary, “Rotor” has much more to do with a music approach. Music, that without any words, is abstract and it creates, for the spectator, a much more abstract experience than that of traditional cinema, based on the linear narration of events.
Lucrezia Cippitelli: Speaking about Hollywood cinema, there is another topic, about which you were talking to me, that intrigues me: the effects of that kind of cinema are connected with a narration form that is much more abstract than that of traditional cinema.
Boris Debackere: I call this factor “emancipation of the effects in the film” from the narration. You could say that during the history, apart from the fact that cinema itself is an effect (that, as we have said, takes place in your brain), spectators have been always involved by the effect of cinema: a magical and mysterious show of images in motion on a wall. After some time, the theatrical narration was introduced into the cinema to draw the public, who, at that point, had begun to get bored, because there was only a play of lights and motion. From that moment, the narration has entered the cinema as a novelty, which has been now perfectly integrated in the cinema we know.
However, during the development of cinema, from the first projection of images and lights, which was the real attraction for spectators, to today, the language of special effects, the stunts, quick editing, and so on, everything has become a sort of race from the seat in the cinema to appeal to more spectators.
The shuttle has started a trip at high speed. What’s happened?
In the cinema of recent years, the narration is not important any longer and special effects and how to shock the public really matter. It’s an audiovisual shock, where narration is used only to justify next great explosion.