By Tina Gelsomini
—To read the feature in Issue 02 in print of THE SEEN, click here—
French contemporary artist Céleste Boursier-Mougenot has been creating installations for over two decades. The artists’ works, which play upon his experience as a composer and longtime passion with experimental music, create ethereal worlds of sight and sound.
One of the artist’s longest-running evolving projects, from here to ear, made its Canadian debut at the Musée des beaux arts de Montréal this winter. To create the nineteenth iteration of the installation, Boursier-Mougenot transported over seventy songbirds into the museum’s enclosed exhibition square, where they flit about and eventually settle on one of the dozen electric guitars and basses strewn about the space. As visitors are carefully filed in by museum staff who regulate the exhibition’s capacity, the interaction of human, animal and mechanical creates a singular experience of live sound.
Recently, I was lucky enough to speak to the artist about this exhibition. The conversation inspired a feature in the THE SEEN Issue 02 in print. The entire interview, which appears below, brings to light Boursier-Mougenot’s romantic fascination with natural life and mechanical objects, and his confounding of these two opposing forces through interactive installation.
TINA GELSOMINI: In from here to ear v. 19, you have transformed the Contemporary Art Square of the Musée des beaux arts de Montréal into an aviary, transplanting over 70 zebra finches into a new environment. Could you tell me more about the physical space that you created, and what inspired your aesthetic choices? How does it mirror the birds’ natural habitat?
CÉLESTE BOURSIER-MOUGENOT: When a museum or a contemporary art center wishes to present an installation with live birds (or any other custom-made project), I always ask to visit and meet the curators of the show before agreeing to begin the conception process, which starts with a drawing – the plan for the installation. The visit is the occasion not only to get closely acquainted with the space, but also to gauge the degree to which the organizers want to do the project and feel implicated in it.
My method takes the space into account as I follow the general flow of its architecture and weigh it’s constraints against the measures and proportions required by the installation. I begin to draw a “bird territory” whose surface is greater than that dedicated to the visitors’ strolling. I often say that I follow the technical guidelines dictated, on the one hand, by the welfare of the birds and the technical principle of the installation, and on the other hand by the specificity of the site and the public occupancy laws that vary from one country to the next. The aesthetic aspect of the work consists of integrating the instrumental equipment (guitars and amplifiers) with the wooden panels (which also vary from one country to the next), the sand and the grasses, all sourced locally. None of these elements have a decorative function. The sand is the most appropriate material for acoustics and hygiene. The plants are selected for the birds, who use them to line their nests, etc. Since all of the exhibition spaces that invite me are different from one another, I’m able to explore new possibilities for the work to change or evolve in its successive incarnations.
At the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, from here to ear v. 19 is placed in a sumptuous square space, one of the purest and most beautiful that I have ever had a chance to inhabit with this work, and which allows for its optimal legibility.
TG: Could you tell us more about the installation process and the process of introducing the birds into the space?
CBM: The time required for the birds to acclimate to their new surroundings is 10 days. That period gives me an occasion to observe them, to live among them while tuning the guitars and amplifiers. It is crucial that the birds discover their new environment after the entire equipment has been installed, to avoid worrying the birds every time a new object is introduced in the aviary. When one opens the crate in which they have travelled, it is wonderful to see them flit about in the space until they perch on the guitars as if it were perfectly natural.
TG: You have installed over a dozen variation of this exhibition. How has it evolved over time?
CBM: from here to ear has always been a work in progress for me and each new installation is an occasion to re-configure it in the most intelligent and elegant way – to make the spatial score more legible and to experiment with the musical result. When I manage to solve a problem, I always wonder why I didn’t think about it before. My goal is for the birds to perch on all the instruments. I’ve noticed that a guitar placed closer to the entrance of the exhibition is less used than the ones at the back of the space, so my strategy has consisted in placing food in overturned cymbals near the entrance, and the guitars around them become useful positions for the birds to access the food. The question of the nests is important. The birds seem to be sensitive to their orientation and they sometimes won’t use a nest if it isn’t oriented properly. In Montreal, we installed nests on each of the four walls.
TG: In this exhibition, the wild natural confronts the mechanical. What does this encounter represent for you? When did you first start creating this sort of encounter in your work?
CBM: The birds were part of the piece since the beginning in 1995 (the piece was titled d’ici à ici). It’s an interesting question, because I think that my work is meant to unfold as an encounter, be it the encounter of a vacuum cleaner with a harmonica (harmonichaos, 2000), that of a drum set with cherry pits falling from the sky (aura, 2015), or that of the viewer with a compelling situation. And even before I went into the field of visual art, when I composed music for orchestras that accompanied theater plays, I discovered that what interested me was already organizing the encounter between a project and musicians coming from very different backgrounds. Setting up the stage for an encounter also implies a bit of logistics. I remember that I was working on an experimental project with five musicians in the 1990s, and after I set up the musical parameters of the project, I spent the rest of my time listening to them play and cooking for them, so that each work session was also a moment of pleasure. When the musicians arrived at my door for a session, they would ask me what was on the menu! Since then, little by little, other objects, other devices or mechanisms, musical or not, manufactured or found, have substituted themselves to purely musical instruments or musicians, along with elements such as water, stones, electricity, to help me compose new propositions for viewers and listeners. They are conceived to generate a musical form and their visual aspect is far from indifferent. The way the elements are configured must be properly tuned, and should be both operational and identifiable as the score of the musical form it produces.
TG: Tell me about your relationship with sound and experimental music.
CBM: I still have many friends who make experimental music and I seek their advice on my work. The experimental process is of great interest to me, but I don’t feel I belong on stage as a performer, so I have adopted installation art as a practice. It is a bit more remote, based on observing and listening, and flexible enough to evolve. Experimental art can sometimes look a bit cobbled together, which has its charms, but what I’m after is to find a balance between visual and aural forms.
TG: How did you curate the music in this exhibition?
CBM: What you hear in from here to ear is never pre-recorded but results from the birds’ physical act of perching, which is translated into live sound. I simply set up the parameters for the performance to take place, like tuning the guitars and the pitch, or using the delay effect to produce all kinds of looped chords like a live musician might do.
TG: In your work, art rejects the static and becomes a source of spectacle and live entertainment. Tell me why this is so important to you.
CBM: Well, as soon as something is fixed, all I see is its deficiencies. It stops being interesting and it bores me. I come from the tradition of the theater, so live action and movement have always fascinated me.
TG: You represented France at the 2015 Venice Biennale. Could you tell me more about Rêvolutions, and what you hoped the viewers would experience upon interacting with that exhibition?
CBM: I am very sensitive to the presence of visitors when I see any kind of exhibition. And, I always consider visitors as integral parts of my installations. I try to determine a kind of open choreography that foregrounds the beauty of this presence. In Venice, the simple fact of having massive objects like trees moving very slowly was slightly intimidating and had an effect on the visitors’ behavior and attitude. Similarly, the possibility of lying down and resting on the soft cushions titled “Les Marches” (Steps) has a consequence on the general atmosphere in the pavilion.
TG: To wrap up, I’d like to touch upon what this work highlighted for me, which would be humanity’s ties to both the natural and the technological. We are at once bound to the natural world and the technology that we have created. Could you speak to that?
CBM: I was lucky to realize a long time ago that my work reaches others when I give shape to my own personal thoughts rather than academic questions. Yes, the project titled Rêvolutions, which is a great example of my process, started from a question, an assumption, a reflection about the co-joining of living matter with human inventions. If trees were given the ability to move, would they learn to use it in order to move even further towards the light?
Tina Gelsomini is a Montreal-based writer, cultural worker, and community volunteer. She has been a Staff Writer at THE SEEN since 2013.