“I wanted to create something in between an attraction and a work of art”. 

This is Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster speaking, on the occasion of an installation work whose first element is a poster showing one of those fenced-off ramps that function as a point of access to a so-called tourist spot, a spectacular panorama. In the genre of the tourist poster, everything is bathed in a golden sunset. In fact, the golden light promotes the bliss of the touristic “elsewhere” so convincingly that you tend to overlook that what the poster is actually presenting is not the panorama itself, not the actual view offered for consumption, only the construction that frames it. A seductive image of touristic image-production, it mainly turns around its own powers of seduction. But then this poster is actually an advertisement for a cinematic production. It marks the entry to a cinema space that itself seems to function as a tourist ramp of sorts. Yet this one does open onto a real panorama – a wide screen displaying a moment of pure sensation, an expanse of shimmering matter (skies or water), spectacularly colored by what could be either a setting sun or video effects. Across this expanse a translucent digital animation object dances a little dance to the dreamy musical soundtrack, turning and twisting as if in homage to the projective forces of synthetic images.

It’s the kind of presentation that might seem wide-open to critical attack. Guy Debord had the exact words for this tourist version of the world: it was a world turned image under the force of 20th century capital, a separate pseudo-world capturing the eye and the mind, taking over consciousness. To regain freedom, one would have to refuse this image-world, tear it apart at the seams, turn it around. But Gonzalez-Foerster, perversely, seems to return to the spectacle as if wanting to augment its original powers of fascination. Witness, for instance, her monumental walls of gold-lame fabric falling into the big outdoor pool at De Singel Kunstcentrum in Antwerpen: a veritable Niagara of gold, a moment of sheer visual force and so also a “sight” in the original sense of the word.  As it happens, this work could only be properly accessed from a small window-niche at one end of the building, a sightseeing ramp within the art centre itself.

However, the concept of the attraction, and the forces of sensation it evokes, actually has a very different definition and quality in Gonzalez-Foerster’s work. For one thing, it cannot simply be associated with the realm of the image-displays or image-commodities: if anything, her work seems to upturn the very concept of “visual presentation”. Seen as a sort of methodology, a singular approach or practice, her work then comes to evoke a rather different set of relations than the one’s informing Debord’s critique. Maurizio Lazzarato put it well when he described the essentially theatrical model informing this critique: Debord seemed to understand the spectacle as a sort of stage presentation that could be critiqued as if from the outside (presumably by minds skeptical enough to avert their eyes). From this analysis comes the notion of refusing the image, interrupting the show, making the screen go black (as in Debord’s film Hurlements en faveur de Sade). But this is also exactly where the differences start to unfurl. There are obviously image screens in Gonzalez-Foerster’s work – in fact a proliferation of screens of all kinds. But these screens only appear as part of larger media arrangements or ecologies that complicates the very notion of an “inside” and “outside” of images. To enter this work is to enter the kind of life environment generated by contemporary media, and to be sensitized to the way in which such environments condition perception, expression and agency. You are invited to follow a cinematic movement that seems more or less identified with the operations of the human perceptual apparatus - that is, with the type of loose and irregular temporal extensions and contractions that seem completely cut-off from the habitual “formatting” of cinematographic content, to the extent that it suggest some sort of direct access to a memory at work.

In this context “cinema” or “media” seems to essentially denote an assemblage of technologies and discourses that integrate the working of human perception as part of their circuits and modes of functioning. And if a late capitalist spectacular culture is evoked here – in the continual return to the spaces and frameworks of tourism, for instance - it can therefore not simply be defined in the terms “visual presentation” or “image-screens”. It could rather be understood as a kind of intimate disciplining of our senses operated by the larger productive apparatuses that draw on the technologies of film, video, computer games, TV-transmissions and all types of electronic networks. For these technologies all essentially seem to handle temporal material in ways that resemble mental operations, and it is precisely this time-processing capacity that makes it possible to see them as apparatuses designed to capture the forces at work in our affective registers. To enter the cinematic world of Gonzalez-Foerster is therefore above all to be invited to trace the open-ended temporal meandering or ambulation of a form human existence that seems to be defined at the level of pure sensation – yet a form of sensation that is continually confused with the working of media machineries, with the ticking of the video time code, the deft segueing of one image into another, the dumb, staring, stillness of the camera. A story of the mind-machine, in other words: it might sound like a paranoid scenario, a meeting of old-school sci-fi imagination and radical media critique. The result, however, is less easily definable. For the main achievement of this work is precisely its ability to explore the surprising range and scope of this type of existence. In fact, the more it closes in on the idiosyncratic details of technical frameworks, the more it seems to brings out the type of open-ended, uncontrollable, non-formatted moments that might actually be the key product of this mediatic “life of the senses”.

A particular kind of cinematic methodology opens onto this existence. It is of course not a methodology in the strictest sense of the word, only a certain set of operations that seem to recur often enough in her work to produce certain systematic effects. The first step in this methodology is an emphatic turn towards atmospherics – that is, to the type of emotions or affects associated with shared space. For the concept of atmospheres obviously evokes the idea of some sort of collective perception or experience: while always the result of a subjective perception, atmospheres are also object-like emotions that are so to speak cast into a shared space. This turn towards atmospherics is initiated the moment Gonzalez-Foerster’s work seems to suggest that the essence of cinema (or television or any luminous time-medium) is not just a specific mobilization of images, but also a type of environmental creation that is initiated as soon as the film projector directs a cone of light through dark spaces or a television screen illuminates a room with its flickering emanations. In fact, a kind of obstinate continuity in her work opens onto these perspectives: From the elliptically designed yet intensely atmospheric room-installations that come across as the physical traces of some kind of and highly subjective memory, to her notion of associating or intertwining the vast spaces of cinematic imagery and the space of the private home, to the type of perceptual/mediatic “inhabitation” that seems to inform her purely cinematic productions, the concept of perceptual/environmental creation is absolutely key. From this point of view, cinema projections and the projections of the psychic apparatus are understood to create space in analogous ways. As Hubert Damisch puts it, spaces may be seen as projections of the psychic apparatus that do not pre-exist this apparatus: what we call space is the correlative to the operation through which the psychic register opens itself towards the world by projecting itself. (The ego could be seen as the mental projection of the surface of the body at the same time as it represents the spatial extension of the psychic apparatus).  Once we see that such mechanisms of projection are the condition of what we call representation, cinema space may in fact appear as a space without limits: this is why it is also the essential escapist machine, a tourist machine par excellence. And if cinema space normally appears framed and limited within the space of a representational image-screen, it is mainly because the viewing subject has been placed at the margin of the projective dispositif – along with the apparatus of projection which is usually also hidden.

In this account of things, cinema is associated with the basic functions of a lamp:  a long romantic tradition notably associate lamps with both mental projection and spatial creation and the medium of electric light was also celebrated for its unique ability to created spaces and visibilities where previously there was nothing. But what really counts here is the specific way in which the idea of film-as-lamp informs the cinematic operations of Gonzalez-Foerster, the entirely idiosyncratic way in which it structures the artistic productions she presents as her films. The feature length work named Ipanema Theories is a point in case, and could perhaps be used as a test case for what actually seems to be a more general principle. A film without characters, action or narrative, it allows various urban spaces from around the world to unfold in sequences that continually return to the same type of objects or scenes: lobbies, crowd movements in public spaces, facades of buildings, empty outdoor restaurants and stages, club scenes, people in silhouette against luminous architecture, places of passage and travel. Where or when soon ceases to matter as the cities of Kyoto, Yokohama, Hong Kong, Bangkok, Paris and London, blend into one another: the only thing that matters is a kind of hallucinatory ambulation through spaces at once different and dizzyingly similar, and where escapism is in fact configured as a sort of open-ended, dislocated movement.

This effect is reinforced by the soundtrack – an intense Latin house beat that appears only in truncated bits and pieces throughout the film, regularly interspersed with silences:  From one moment to the next the “beat of the city”, the cliché of cinematic representations of urbanity, is supplanted by city-images that seem to float by as if without definition, according to entirely different rhythms or durations. For once, music is not used to “ground” a film, to secure its representations, but rather to open up the question of exactly what type of object this film might possibly be. And this again opens onto what is no doubt the strangest aspect of this film:  its steady return to lamps and lamp-like objects – on more than 70 distinct occasions in the course of the film. In fact, the “movement” of the film seems to continually come to a halt confronted with a lamp objects: Wherever a lamp appears there is also a sort of intent focusing and fixation, an emphasis on the object-like stillness of the light source that ultimately turns cinematic production inside out. The apparatus of projection, the light source that is film, now quite literally resides within cinematic imagery itself. But this effect is at the same time extended to the way in which Ipanema Theories is made to perform in social situations. Hardly a cinematic work in the usual sense of the term, its floating, unbounded image-durations may be screened anywhere and on any kind of surface. It may, for instance, be used as a visual backdrop in clubs, where it will function as an atmosphere producer alongside the other lighting systems. But this specific type of use is also folded into the film itself, registered as a part of its imagery and set of durations: Ipanema Theories repeatedly returns to images of an ecstatic dance floor illuminated by a screen showing parts of its own footage.

It is this emphatic staging of the film-as-lamp that reintroduces the presence of the projective spectator or viewing subject. As Ipanema Theories not only documents but also creates spaces, it quite explicitly places the mental apparatus of the spectator at the centre of cinematic space. In fact, the presence of this spectator-mind is further underscored as the focus on lamps is doubled by a focus on real-time functions and operations that recall the flexible temporalities of mental operations and seem to install a kind of human memory or thinking at the centre of the film. Lamps may be the most frequently repeated focal points in the film, but digital clocks and all kind of different time-code indicators come a close second, and often remain in focus for such long durations that the temporality of the film almost becomes identified with the technical operations of the time code function – a continual irruption of real-time within the representational sequencing of images. This is where the distinction between the temporalities of the film and the mental time of the projective spectator seems to collapse. And with this collapse, the notion of “cinema space” is, once more, turned inside out.

It could seem like a general deconstruction of cinema, but the operation has a more precise aim. It turns around the one critical feature that is shared by cinema and the capital interest of the tourism and real estate industries: the question of location. Like so many of Gonzalez-Foerster’s films, Ipanema Theories opens up the question of the very place and presence of cinematic location - the concrete and identifiable geographical locations that seem to be both the “raw material” and the “subject matter” of her films. Geographical locations often appear to be mere functions of lamps: they are outdoor and interior spaces that are either illuminated by lamps or punctuated by lamp objects. Nighttime locations are functions of the design and light quality of lamps and neon signs. And daytime cityscapes are littered by unlit lamps that speak of the imminent and always potential transformation of the sense of space itself. Shaped by lamps, defined by atmospherics, “location” mainly comes across as an effect of cinematographic projection. Or – more precisely- as the product of the space-creating activity of a mental apparatus whose capacity for unbounded ambulation and complex modes of time-travel represents precisely those forces that the tourist and real estate industries try to latch on to, to mine or to exploit as best they can. In the long catalogue of artworks handling the reality of the image world of contemporary capital, this is the crucial distinction introduced by the work of Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster:  Not to explore the images of the spectacle and the effects of those images, but rather – and more importantly - the forces that run ahead of the spectacle and that the spectacle can only capture in partial and imperfect ways.