Without Bounds
Issue: Volume: 32 Issue: 4 (Apr. 2009)

Without Bounds

When Paris-based artist Maurice Benayoun created the animated TV series Quarxs with Belgian comic-book artist Francois Schuiten in 1990, people considered the use of CG animation as new media: The HD-resolution series, which starred CG creatures that bent the laws of physics, biology, and optics to explain the world’s imperfections, pre-dated even ReBoot. In the years since, the award-winning artist’s exploration into digital media has bent artistic perceptions beyond the world of animated films as he’s moved through virtual reality, on into augmented reality, and out the other side.

Last year, in January 2008, the European School of Visual Arts (ÉESI) in Poitiers, France, organized a 15-year retrospective exhibition of 10 Benayoun installations, including his famous 1995 “Tunnel under the Atlantic” and the award-winning, cave-based “World Skin, A Photo Safari in the Land of War,” as well as the more recent “Emotion Vending Machine” co-produced with the ÉESI in 2006.

With “Tunnel,” as participants in Paris’s Pompidou Centre and Montreal’s Museum of Contemporary Art watched images, proprietary software developed by Z-A, the production studio Benayoun cofounded in 1985, continuously selected new images based on such criteria as how long participants looked at image areas. Tunnelers “met” when their images matched.

For “World Skin,” Benayoun put people wearing 3D glasses inside a VR cave, where they focused cameras on sliding layers of Bosnian War photos. Each camera click blanked out a photographed area. Now, for a series of installations called the “Mechanics of Emotions,” he’s taking “snapshots” of the world’s emotional state by using data from the Web. For example, in 2006, his “Emotion Vending Machine” let people create downloadable cocktails of images and sounds from emotions captured in real time via the Internet. 

In 2007, with help from his longtime collaborator, composer Jean-Baptiste Barrière, Benayoun turned a map of world emotions into a music score that played at the Palazzo Strozzi in Italy. Last December, he installed “Still Moving,” a large, interactive sculpture of emotions, in the main entrance of Paris’s Grand Palais.

We caught up with Benayoun in his home/office/studio in Paris’s densely populated and trendy 11th arrondissement where he lives with his wife and young daughter. He designed the modern structure, which wraps around an airy atrium between buildings, by working with Christophe Girault, an architect he also collaborated with to create a new permanent exhibition at the Arc de Triomphe.

“There was nothing here,” Benayoun says of his high-ceilinged live-work space. “There was a restoration of the buildings on either side, and this was a completely open space with no walls, nothing. We created it from scratch.” 

For “Still Moving,” an installation at the Grand Palais, Benayoun used Internet data and rapid-prototyping tools to sculpt an emotional map of the world. Visitors touching the defl ated globe feel vibrations from unheard music mapped to the emotions by composer Jean-Baptiste Barrière.

Rain beats down on the glass ceiling of the atrium. Benayoun makes strong coffee, and we settle on a large, black-leather couch. He looks like a cross between a professor and an avant-garde artist, and indeed he is both, having taught at the University of Paris 1 (Pantheon-Sorbonne) since 1985. The kitchen is to our left, stainless steel and modern. In front of us, floor-to-ceiling bookcases line a wall behind a long glass table, and a staircase leads to the family’s private living quarters. Behind us, a large area overflows with computers, printers, files, and storage cabinets.

“In the 17th century, playwrights told stories about the world as an illusion,” Benayoun says. “Even movies from the 1950s were about the world being exactly what comes out of your mind. With The Matrix, the idea was that fiction is becoming our reality. But now, the real world is becoming fiction. That’s different.”

Benayoun points to reality shows and television news by way of example, noting that CNN presented the war in Iraq using titles created with 3D graphics that looked like the receding text at the beginning of Star Wars. “Once you’re in a fiction,” he says, “world-scale events touch you only like a movie. The separation between reality and fiction is not clear; it’s just another story. What I am trying to do is not create illusion. Not make people think reality and fiction are the same, but awaken people.”

Take, for example, the permanent exhibit Benayoun designed for a museum inside the Arc de Triomphe, which won a competition sponsored by the National Bureau of Monuments in France. “Can you imagine,” he laughs. “I thought, if I do something in the Arc de Triomphe, I will be considered as an ‘official’ artist, you know. So, I accepted only if I could say the things I wanted to say.”

Paris Plus
Napoleon ordered the Arc de Triomphe built after his victory over Russian and Austrian forces in 1805, and the massive structure, finished in 1836, has become a symbol of war and a tribute to fallen soldiers. “But, Napoleon said his war would be the last one,” Benayoun says, “and on the Arc de Triomphe, there is a sculpture called ‘Peace.’” So Benayoun titled his design “Between War and Peace.”

Visitors reach the museum tucked into the arch by climbing 284 steps inside one leg of the monument. Until the 2.2 million Euro renovation led by Benayoun, that museum had displayed the same collection of dusty memorabilia in a dark and dingy room since 1930. Now, visitors encounter 13 high-definition plasma screens that display historical images. The screens, which Benayoun had  mounted on 65-inch-tall heavy, square, steel platforms set in straight lines, are positioned within each platform to create an oblique line that slashes through the space to break and connect parallels, virtual and real. Long, yellow benches line the walls.

Benayoun’s red “IDWorms,” installed during Shanghai’s eArts Festival in 2008, captured participants’ faces and converted them into barcodes that, together, formed an ever-expanding, huge image of barcodes dynamically extruded at the far edge to produce a constantly growing 3D city skyline.

“[The officials] asked me why the furniture is not blue and red—because of the French flag, of course,” Benayoun says. “I wanted to answer, ‘because not blue and not red.’ But I say, ‘We need some sun inside.’”

However, at each end of the room stand two monitors that, at first glance, look like typical museum exhibits. But on one we can see red-tinted images; the other displays blue-tinted images. The red monitor shows images only of the monument’s wartime uses; on the blue, images of the monument used in peacetime flicker past. In front of each monitor is a joystick mounted on a platform. Museum visitors can pick a joystick and control the display speed of the images. They can compete between war and peace. If they stop the display to focus on one picture, the tint disappears.

Benayoun laughs, “[The officials] saw the monitors and said, ‘Oh, good. This is the red and blue.’ And I said, ‘Yes. You understand everything.’”

Also inside the museum space is a small brass replica of the Arc with all the details of its sculptures created to scale. The brass replica is an input device. “People can feel the sculptures,” Benayoun says. “As they move [the replica], they control a life-size video projection of the sculptures.”

The most radical part of the exhibition, though, will be a few steps up: AR binocular telescopes installed on the roof. From the Arc’s rooftop, visitors have a magnificent, 360-degree view of Paris. By looking into the telescopes, they will see an augmented version of that reality.

“We have a complete 3D model of Paris that we can integrate with the HD video from a camera inside the telescope,” Benayoun explains. He expects to install the first applications in May.

 “At the beginning, they will see something simple, like words printed on monuments,” Benayoun says. “And, if they keep looking at the monument, they’ll see more information. Another use will be to see the past, to see how an area looked one or two centuries ago, using 3D models that are fully integrated inside the view.” With the 3D model, they can also increase the virtual light in the city for those looking through the telescope at night. 

But, Benayoun’s vision for the telescope reaches far beyond historical data and architectural applications. “Imagine,” he says, “that the weather in the sky over the city that you see through the telescope isn’t related to actual weather, but to the emotional state of people in the city. We could have people in districts say how they feel today on their cell phones and on the Web, and that would impact the kinds of clouds that form in the sky over their districts. We want to think more about living together and sharing; to learn more about how we can live together. So, we are creating new software and thinking about many uses.”

“We” is a group of students, artists, and researchers working within a university center called CITU, cofounded in 2004 by Benayoun and Jean-Pierre Balpe, a professor at the University of Paris 8, sometime after Benayoun closed his production studio. Funded by the European Union, the Culture and Communication ministry (DRAC Ile de France), and the Ile de France region, the multi-disciplinary group blends artistic creation and scientific research in new media fields. Benayoun serves as the art director.

People visiting “Centropolis,” Benayoun’s installation for France’s year in China, saw a composite world city “painted” by 12 viewers looking into custom-designed, augmented-reality binoculars.

“I was obliged to have a company to do Quarxs and my VR installations,” Benayoun says. “But now I can do all those things through CITU.”

Benayoun first put CITU’s AR telescopes to work in “Cosmopolis,” a giant immersive installation created in 2005 for the French Year in China and installed in Shanghai, ChongQing, Chengdu, and Beijing. Twelve four-by-three-meter screens hanging from a circular structure displayed video of  constantly changing urban environments in 12 cities: Paris, Berlin, Barcelona, Chicago, Johannesburg, Cairo, Sao Paulo, Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing, Chengdu, and Hong Kong. Twelve AR telescopes pointed at the screens ringed the outside of the circle; benches inside the circle allowed visitors to view the other side of the screens.

When participants looked through the telescopes, though, they saw five panoramas of one city. A custom system tracked their viewpoint, and custom software collected and combined the digital images to create one virtual city from all the intersecting gazes. Visitors inside the circle saw that assembled panorama.

“People painted a world city by mixing 12 different cities from around the world,” Benayoun explains. “They painted with their eyes. If they looked very fast, the image was transparent. If they looked longer, they painted details.”

Mapping Global Emotions
Benayoun’s “Mechanics of Emotion” series, on the other hand, considers people’s emotional view of the world by analyzing data on the Internet. His idea is that we could think of the Internet as a world nervous system, one that knows the planet’s pain and pleasure. So, again using custom software, he queries the English language data for specific words—fear, perhaps, or joy.

At first, Benayoun created a tag cloud with the result, overlaying text in various sizes on a map of the globe based on the number of hits. Then, he began creating terrain maps based on the number of hits for a particular word. One city’s 630 hits on the word “nervous” would produce a little bump in the map; another city might build a mountain with 15,700 hits.

“I’m not trying to do something scien­tific,” Benayoun says, walking to a wide filing cabinet with narrow drawers. “I’m just trying to see if I get a significant response. Then I create frozen feelings that are sculptures.” He pulls open a drawer, and a tray with platters of emotions slide out from the cabinet. The platters look like thick clay plates with bumps. “These are dead emotions, of course,” the artist says, “because they can’t move.” For his first exhibition with the “dead” emotions, Benayoun projected the relief map for “fear” onto large, transparent spheres hanging from the ceiling of a church in Italy, and below the sphere, presented platters of frozen feelings like religious relics.

In December, Benayoun gave the frozen emotions a little life with “Still Moving,” an interactive installation at the Grand Palais that he plans to install in other cities, as well. For this, he created a giant sculpture with three emotions in layers—nervous, anxious, excited—using blue, yellow, and red to represent each emotion. To create the thick, multi-level, flattened sphere, Benayoun and CITU used Stratoconception, an innovative rapid-prototyping method for creating large parts from layers of materials, developed by CIRTES, the European Center for Rapid Prototyping. 

When people approach the sculpture, which is three and a half meters in diameter, they can feel a vibration that increases when they touch it. “They can feel music—which is also made with the level of emotions—with their bodies,” Benayoun says. “They cannot hear it.” City names appear on areas they touch.

“Still Moving” is one of 14 “Mechanics of Emotions” projects Benayoun has imagined, only some of which he’s already implemented. “I have many new projects relating to emotions,” he says. “Some are close to completion. But, it’s always difficult to say too much until they are completed.”

The Dump
It is not difficult at all, though, for Benayoun to talk about an ongoing project that he calls, “The Dump.” It is a blog (http://www.the-dump.net/), a collection of his ideas. Hundreds of ideas. “Everyone can come and take them and do them if they want,” he says.

One concept, for example, is that people might live rent-free in apartments wall­papered with catalog pages. Each month, the catalog company would replace the wallpaper with new pages of products appropriate for each room.

Benayoun created a tag cloud of hits on the Internet for the word “fear” to create an emotional world map that he projected onto a helium balloon. He titled the exhibition “Sfear.”

Another idea would help critics define contemporary art. “I tried to understand what it is that makes people say something is art,” Benayoun explains with characteristic sardonic humor. “I think it has nothing to do with content, so I thought, maybe it’s the smell. And, I found the smell. It’s the smell of the white paint used for the wall because the galleries are newly painted for each exhibition. So I propose to create a new paint perfume that artists could dab onto their works. Then, the critics and journalists and curators would say, ‘This is contemporary art.’”

Benayoun submitted “The Dump” as his PhD thesis and became, arguably, the first artist to use a blog to qualify for a doctorate degree. “I think ‘The Dump’ is one of the most exciting things I’m doing,” he says. “It’s a way to go deeper and deeper inside to what art could be, what innovation could be, and what any action should be. You know, I can’t think about art without thinking about the world. It’s not about political correctness. So why should I decide to do something? Very often you only know what artists like to do because you see the results. You never know what they decided not to do, or couldn’t do, or didn’t know how to do. So, ‘The Dump’ is also about that. It’s about artistic intention.”

Of all his work, “The Dump” is the simplest form of digital art, but also the most accessible and most interactive. It is neither virtual nor augmented reality, or perhaps it’s both, but with it, Benayoun might have created the newest of all new media. At least, for now.

Barbara Robertson is an award-winning writer and a contributing editor for Computer Graphics World. She can be reached at   BarbaraRR@comcast.net .