curated by Jerome Jacobs
SAMUEL ROUSSEAU - PLASTIKCITY: THE POETICS OF A SHANTYTOWN
by Françoise Parfait, June 2005
Cities are a collection of many things: memories, desires, linguistic signs; every book of economic history explains that cities are places of exchange, but such exchange is not just commercial- it's also the exchange of words, of desires, of memories. -Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities, 1972
In the dark silence of an immense room in the Carré Saint-Vincent, Samuel Rousseau's three constructions occupy the floor, illuminated by a series of back-projected video images. On entering the exhibition space, the visitor is immediately struck by the strong visual impact of these three objects made of light, their reflections spilling across the floor. The impression of monumentality given by the three architectural monoliths, referencing urban scale, is rapidly contradicted by the strong presence of the objects that act as the projection screen- a whole collection of plastic containers of different shapes and sizes, apparently piled on top of each other to form tall structures reminiscent of American turn of the century sky-scrapers. The successive stepped tiers of two of these constructions give them a pyramidal structure, suggesting the upper section of the Empire State Building in New York for example, while the third is more compact and squat, like a city viewed from above, with its different levels crowded on top of each other. At a distance, the piece exists as an installation between sculpture and architect's model.
As a result, a double notion of scale is activated on first sight- between the city and the object. Between landscape and the body. Between the weight of numbers and the individual. These three urban forms, each one autonomous and separate in the space, are "inhabited" by the silhouettes of a multitude of characters, framed by a whole network of doors and windows, and moving around in all directions as they carry out diverse and repeated actions. As in a cross-section study of an anthill under observation in a laboratory, the apparent disorder gradually gives way to organization, both in the overall view of the installation- with visual effects of looped symmetry, and in individual actions, each of which tells a story, as in those cutaway views of building interiors in 19th Century engravings. The lure of detail draws the spectator in. Moving closer, perhaps crossing into the beam of light from the video projectors placed on the floor, the materiality of the plastic containers that make up the screen reveals itself. The containers are cut in half vertically, and riveted together; each one lets the light through to a greater or lesser extent, and their variations of color and opacity are visually punctuated by the presence of their plastic caps. The materiality of the video image itself is asserted through this microscopic vision, allowing the pixels to appear as they move around within the window frames, like cells trapped under the glass slides of a biology lab. The figure-sign glimpsed from afar becomes matter in movement when viewed from close up, and this difference of perception encourages the viewer to step back once again. In this way, the spectator carries out a repeated back and forth action between overall and detailed views, constructing a representation and idea of the strange urbanity proposed by Samuel Rousseau. The artist produced the piece at the Scène Nationale d'Orleans, which hosted the project and provided the necessary resources. Using elements of theater décor made for the occasion, along with willing actors and dancers, Samuel Rousseau recorded a collection of characters and situations making up a database with which he composed the images used in the project. After constructing the plastic container walls, the artist used them directly as a projection screen to position, shift, combine and articulate different sequences by inserting them into electronic pages, like views from so many real windows placed inside the screen window. The miniaturization of his subjects allowed the artist to multiply the elements projected on the surface of the containers, and to compensate for the loss of detail in each image, with the monumentality provided by their vast number. After laborious fine-tuning, the final video component, removed from its geometric frame, was applied to the complex constructed form of the plastic containers constituting a genuine electronic skin, fused by porosity with the almost organic plastic surface. The banal situations filmed on the theater stage- men in a hurry, a woman pulling a suitcase on wheels, couples arguing, a door slamming, a running silhouette, separations and encounters, etc.- are juxtaposed and linked together, to make up the smallest details of the complex organism of a global contemporary city, a vast urban matrix in which the individual is merely an anonymous element, a cog among so many others. The Machine for Living, paragon of modernity, finds its incarnation here in its own negative, its unconscious, and its hidden side - the jerry can shantytown. The video image, product of a furtive and evanescent technological economy of flux, comes to life in a plastic container whose poverty as object and material evokes manual transport, retail trade with no storage, the economy of recycling and survival, of precarity and nomadism. The empty container, residue of a consumed product or item of industrial waste, turns up far from the center, on the outskirts, in the suburbs of cities and the extremities of the western world. In redirecting the technological image away from its context and the object of its function, Plastikcity itself participates in an economy of recycling. This criticism of political order is merely implied in Samuel Rousseau's installation, but it is here that the work takes on all of its potency.
If the materials themselves, and their interrelation provide meaning, the representation of a point of view by the image itself, is similarly not without significance. The window motif, paradigm of the representation of the "real" world since the Renaissance, encourages us to look through a frame. Cinema, following in the footsteps of photography, turned the window into both a protected substitute eye (viewfinder, projector) and a model of surveillance (of the world or its neighbor). Human trade and bachelor machinations observe each other in the seat of anonymity that our contemporary cities have become. If Plastikcity brings to mind films like Hitchcock's Rear Window, or the deadly, scopic impulses of Michael Powell's Peeping Tom, there is no analysis of the body in psychological breadth here; instead the figure-signs direct us more towards the visual mechanics of the panopticon. The body, as a graphic sign, can be read like a word, a musical note written on a line, or a musical bar scanned by the eye like an electron beam reading an electronic line; The status of the human being is reduced to that of an electronic signal varying and arranging itself into a number of texts featuring human relations.
This is not the first time that Samuel Rousseau has worked with a theater; neither is it the first time that he has made work based on a generative master program. This new work seems to be the conclusion of his previous research. From Video Wallpaper to Giant and P'tit Bonhomme, Samuel Rousseau uses humor and lightness to pursue the difficulty experienced by the contemporary body to remain in its frame, to conform to the scale it has constructed for itself. The artist introduces the synthetic body into the environment of our modern Metropolis, injecting it with the poetics of overflow, excess and disproportion.