Get Real! (Eng.)

Perception, simulation, inscription – The Superamas and representational strategies

Janus 1 Dec 2002English

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Contextual note
This interview was published in Janus (Winter 2002), pp. 132-135. The translation was reviewed for republication on Sarma. The unabridged author's version is available in Dutch elsewhere on Sarma.

For several years four French artists working in a variety of disciplines have operated under the name Superamas. Jérôme Dupraz is a stage designer and video artist, Krakos is a sound designer, Philippe Riéra is a choreographer and stage director and Vincent Tirmarche a video artist and film-maker. They are in addition all performers. Their work comprises performances, video work and installations, and in addition shows an intense interest in science, ranging from urbanism through cybernetics and artificial intelligence to psychology. The purpose of their work is to gain an insight into our everyday world, especially by examining the position occupied by the body, the way it gives structure and meaning to its surroundings and, vice versa, how its role is thereby defined.

Their recent work includes the performance installation Body Builders (2001), which reflects in a futurist world the contrast between desire and the far-reaching instrumentalisation and mediatisation of the body. Diggin’ Up (digital light - absorption) (2001) is a light installation in which moving bodies show themselves in an inverted manner, by absorbing light. In its more recent counterpart, Play-Mobile (analogical light - reflection) (2002) the image of the body of a single performer also changes in accordance with the evolving lighting. Ultimately, the subtle manipulation of the light above all reveals the relative nature of our perception.

The choreographic video Billy Billy (2002) fictionalises the private home of the Viennese dancer Milli Bitterli using excerpts from film history. Other projects take as their starting point ‘the triviality of Berlusconian culture’. By transferring a highly-charged reality to an artistic context as a ready-made, the piece assumes a political nature. Truck Station (2001) is a video installation in the cab of a truck, where an abstract, contemplative course is regularly interrupted by spots that include a gogo dancer. The Auto-Mobile (2002) performance presents an explicitly masculine economy of images alternated with moments of darkness in which the viewer is literally thrown back on himself.

The starting point for the interview is the Game Boys laboratory, which took place for three weeks in a studio at the Tanzquartier Wien arts centre (Vienna) in January and February 2002. The body and its behaviour patterns were examined in various contexts, with a particular focus on the ‘reality show’ phenomenon, with as guests the gogo dancer Jalda and contemporary dancer Heide Kinzelhofer. Professor Robert Trappl, head of the Artificial Intelligence Research Centre at Vienna University, was also one of the main guests, so that the possibilities of a technologically restructured body also came up. The study served in part as a preparation for the recent Superamas production called BIG (first performed in Kortrijk and Brussels in September 2002), where material, theories and issues could be examined in complete freedom. Two weeks of closed research were followed by a public presentation and discussion. In conjunction with this the Paris bio-computer scientist Bernard Billoud gave a talk on learning processes, which also provided plenty to talk about.


Jeroen Peeters: The ‘laboratory’ is a form of working that has been in vogue in the arts for several years now. Why is it so appealing?

Superamas: The laboratory allows one to experiment with all sorts of material and ideas. It comes down to making observations and then subjecting them to tests. For Game Boys we wanted to find out the extent to which scientific discourse and the concepts of Artificial Intelligence (AI) can be applied to a wide variety of realities. We started from a few artistic intuitions and assembled a pile of extra visual material. On the one hand material that results from such questions as, ‘what are televisual aesthetics?’ and ‘what exactly is the point of reality shows?’, and on the other hand movement material linked to a specific body language, that of a contemporary dancer and of a gogo dancer who normally works in a nightclub. In the laboratory, we brought these ideas, images and movements face to face with the theoretical background of the two guest scientists, the cyberneticist Robert Trappl and the bio-computer scientist Bernard Billoud. Starting from the intuitions we gathered together in the lab situation, we were able to focus our interests and either confirm our intuitions or not. The research enabled us to make selections in our material, to verify what worked and what did not, with an eye to a performance. It was the first time the preparation of a performance, in this case BIG, had so explicitly taken place in a lab situation.

The research and construction of a performance are two distinct moments, because of their different temporalities. It is a comfortable situation when you have time to reflect, read writings, and discuss the processes you are experiencing with experts in the field. It has a liberating effect, because the showing of artistic results is not an objective in itself .


Three fields seem to be closely interwoven in your work: art, science and an everyday context, linked to, amongst other things, popular culture. In their turn, these fields employ their own specific media and representational strategies. How can you embrace them together?

Superamas: This makes a reference to the discussion that the philosopher Bernard Stiegler is currently engaging in with the Frankfurter Schule very interesting. They considered cinema as a representational system that is extremely negatively charged and even dangerous because perception and imagination become confused and thereby the comprehension of reality too. Stiegler himself extends their analysis at least as far as reality shows and Big Brother, and is of the opinion that it is precisely that they have the power to generate a reality instead of representing it. By means of human labour they arrived at a produced reality, which is a new sort of reality.

Television and cinema, and the editing-based media in general, allow an externalisation of consciousness. Just think of Jean-Luc Godard’s films, which literally put thinking on screen, which is very interesting in terms of dramaturgy. We work in the performing arts, so at a certain moment we present something to the audience. The question we want to ask ourselves in that respect is whether instead of representing a particular subject, we could ‘re-present’ it, meaning present it a second time and even a third. Then we are taking the term ‘representation’ literally. As a consequence it is no longer a matter of representation, because the process commits itself to presenting the representation itself. So we are playing with particular conventions and thereby removing ourselves from a referential framework, but what we show is nevertheless an example of reality, though a virtual one, it must be said.


A philosopher like Slavoj Zizek raises the question of identity, now that our perception occupies a position between two regimes of reality. How do you deal with that?

Superamas: This is a fundamental question that has to be asked, even though we are not philosophers. We are artists who approach and use these concepts, but at the same time understand the importance of this question, because it is about the politics of our consciousness. It is indeed about the constitution of the subject. The field in which the consciousness is currently operating has been thoroughly upturned by all the technological possibilities that have arisen, which change the way we understand reality. Given that reality repeats itself, grouping and regrouping elements of it in another temporality or in different places with a shared time, this changes the way we understand reality, and in fact changes reality itself. I think it is our task to extrapolate the points the questions raise in connection with the body, our impressions and our view. That is also why we often work with contemporary dance, because it touches upon the intimacy of the body. This also means our work is not purely cerebral, and that we want to share a confrontation with a physical reality, that of the body, precisely because all thinking is embedded in a body and a space.


To what extent, in your work, is the recontextualisation of a basic subject connected to a particular conception of space?

Superamas: In BIG we use a trivial scenario in which a particular sequence is repeated several times with small modifications. This does not mean we are concerned with a sort of dramaturgy that revolves round changing things. On the contrary, it is a matter of making inscriptions in time, space and meaning visible by means of this trivial scenario. How does one focus one’s view on their constituent principles? We repeat a scene but leave something out; for example a voice may be left out while the lips continue to move. There are a few values that are evidence of a particular way of looking and which are also related to the first perception. In this way they raise questions about all the references and actions that have led to changes in this pattern.

In this case our area of work is theatre, where a sort of overall consensus still prevails, even before the performance has begun: what is good, what is not good, what is art and what is not. We would like to show things in all their triviality before we start to amuse ourselves with a specific look at them. Paradoxically enough, in art one needs this whole order of the politically correct to arrive at this point. Every act, every performance, registers itself in a particular area of meaning, and that includes a culture of conventions. It is only because there is a shared basis that one can adjust this view and make other elements visible.


The body gives structure and meaning to its surroundings and, vice versa, is thereby itself defined. How do you see this connection?

Superamas: There is a work by Monica Bonvicini that uses film excerpts in which you see women, actresses, and in each case they are shown near a window or a door. So the focus is the relationship between women and architecture. An accompanying quotation from an architect says that men are educated towards mobility, including social mobility, and that, conversely, women are educated towards dependence on their surroundings. In Bonvicini’s work you can see very well how the female body is completely dependent on her domestic environment. We see how this social fact finds its place in what literally constitutes a culture, in this case the cinema. It concerns a broad range of films, American, Italian, and so on, so it is not founded directly on any political message, but is genuinely a matter of making a mark. I thought this work was very powerful and moving, because you are confronted with something you know beforehand, but now see how it works.


In the video Billy Billy you employ the reverse method: the everyday mark a body makes is fictionalised.

Superamas: The scenario is simple: it is the dancer Milli Bitterli in her home. We tried to find out how we could link the way her body made its mark on that flat to similar cases that already existed in films. So you see excerpts of Bitterli in her flat alternated with bits of film. In each case, the two scenes have the same plan, the same framing and so on. The bodies make their mark on the space in the same way, but there is a leap towards the cinematographic level. The result is complex because the dramatic result is based on a shared registration that leads to a form of polysemy, because the registration is cultural, social and political. At the same time it is a simple matter of editing. We have remained at the level of space and time, as a choreographic matter. Despite the ordinary and real mark made by Bitterli’s body, there is nevertheless a process of fictionalisation. In this way there arises an iconographic approach to cinema, because all connections are devoid of dramatisation, but images are generated anyway.


Fiction has a different status from simulation as a representational strategy. How do the two relate to each other in your work?

Superamas: Fiction is representation. Fiction has a temporality that requires you to participate in it as a spectator, and you are integrated into it. Conversely, the temporality of simulation is a presence, it is making present something that occurs. The spectator sees it differently – you are not led towards anything, you are just there, here and now. The connection is interesting, a time to be shared both by being there and being somewhere else. In the performance called Body Builders this relationship between fiction and simulation is right. Hitchcock’s Vertigo is projected at each end of the acting area, and the images surround the stage, so you are literally in the picture. At the same time the identification no longer works because the image is duplicated: the fictional device is itself simulated. By this means we ourselves created a certain distance from the fiction and from the spectator’s position linked to it.


What meaning does an image still convey in this repetition made possible by technological processes?

Superamas: The repetition has a complement which I like to call alteration, a term that indicates minor modifications. Stiegler talks about three types of retention. The first form of memory, for example, sees to it that you remember to eat, the second allows you to register and remember occurrences. The third is a new type of retention, as in the phonograph, whereby you can play back a temporary occurrence in an identical way at a later time. In this form of memorisation, what changes in the repetition is your own perception, and therefore your own relationship with the subject. Because we use several media, we are logically also interested in this form of retention. In concrete terms, I am thinking of loops, a strategy that is very much in vogue.

Take 11th September 2001, for example. An event takes place that is quite dramatic and touches the whole planet. The handling of this information was a single loop of images that was broadcast by all media stations: two planes flying into two towers. That is all. Since in the first instance there was no other image, our knowledge of the event is based entirely on this loop. We have extrapolated all the rest on the basis of this one thing, this minimal loop of images: the horror, the political consequences, etc. It may be banal, but it makes clear where our belief in the image leads, that we make nothing of basing our entire knowledge on it.

Compare that to the pictures of any similar conflict, such as the Gulf War: there is one single image - the sky above Baghdad with a flash of lightning. What did we see of the war in Afghanistan? Nothing at all. We are increasingly heading for an affective emptying of images, which could in fact be a constituent of a collective consciousness. What is shown is only what is not important. We do not get to see the death of millions of people – you have to imagine that for yourself. It is strange, astonishing and worrying that it is precisely these images that our society, which is based so solidly on images, does not show. You find out that images change very little, that their tangibility is lost and all too often arouse only indifference.

The interview took place in Kortrijk (B) on 24 June 2002.