[July 16 2019]
“Let’s not spoil it for people” Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster tells me when we sit down to talk about her debut virtual reality work, commissioned for the main show at year’s Venice Biennale, the massive ‘May You Live In Interesting Times’ curated by Ralph Rugoff. Without giving too much away, ‘Endodrome’ is a difficult creature to pin down, within an Arsenale show that is already a menagerie of curious beasts. Seen from the outside, in many ways it sits neatly on the continuum of Gonzalez-Foerster’s work, a diorama of sorts, a constructed space. But much is new and mysterious here: a séance-like event, digital headsets, and sounds and images that speak to other worlds and, yes, to interesting times.
JETHRO TURNER— How did you start developing the work?
DOMINIQUE GONZALEZ-FOERSTER— The first step was to research. I really enjoyed reading Jaron Lanier’s autobiography, where he describes all the first steps in VR, and how VR is as interesting when you enter in and out of it, and also about the frustration of working with it. It can become a really interesting space, especially when you make it free. So, the first decision was to take all the grids and guidelines off, in order to really enter a space.
JETHRO TURNER— How did it evolve from there?
DOMINIQUE GONZALEZ-FOERSTER— ‘Endodrome’ is kind of a sequel to ‘Cosmodrome’, which is a total environment I made in 2002, which is a dark space, you enter and do a space trip, and it’s about the same length. So the ‘Cosmodrome’ was the trip in outer space and ‘Endodrome’ is the inner journey. Another way to look at it is via my fascination for display techniques and devices. I studied the late 19th century, from early cinema, and pre-cinema to panoramas, and also how certain techniques like early photography suddenly became connected to Spiritism. How merging the two made it possible to have all these photographs, where you have ectoplasm and strange things happening. So photography as a new technique was not dedicated to portraiture or a presentation or recording something, but also became an experimental medium. And so I wanted to regenerate a bit of that. I really like the idea that technology can connect in another way. The idea that the most synthetic environment could also be a link to the abstract or emotional.
JETHRO TURNER— And the spiritual too?
DOMINIQUE GONZALEZ-FOERSTER— Yes, but not only. If you think of a Hilma af Klint as a painter or Emma Kunst, I think the spiritual sometimes is an excuse to be experimental. And not the opposite. In fact, I think it’s just that it It opens a field for those who are disconnected from a certain representation in academic ways and it opens a possibility either into abstraction, or into new types of work. So this is one side I wanted to explore, and since I’m not a painter and for me abstraction is not so easy, I took it as a chance to explore that, which is a question that has been on my mind for a while.
JETHRO TURNER— Can you explain the sound in the piece?
DOMINIQUE GONZALEZ-FOERSTER— Because I was aware that it is such a synthetic medium I also wanted to hybridize it with something very organic, and something involving experiences I’ve had in the past two years, with Corine Sombrun who did the soundscape. She works on trance, a modified state of consciousness, induced by sound. I’m part of a group she’s working with to experience that. And I’ve realized that there is a kind of analogy between this space where you’re in it, and where you’re still in another space. So you have a space in this space. And you have to cut off from a whole set of information. And it’s replaced by a new set. And, of course, when you’re in a trance you have to trust at that moment that no one will, you know, hit you from behind. I mean, we’re still animal in that sense!
JETHRO TURNER— I was fascinated by the physical space as well, because you talk about your work being a series of journeys. And one of those journeys has been your work with dioramas, and in this work you create another diorama in a way, one in which we observe people experiencing the artwork.
DOMINIQUE GONZALEZ-FOERSTER — In the beginning I was so worried about the VR experience, that it wouldn’t be satisfying. So I thought I should secure the set, and my first instinct was to stage it like a séance and to provide any viewer, with or without a headset, with an interesting vision. And I must say I really like to watch it from outside. I mean, it’s always nice in a film to see someone watching. It’s also like looking at a Caspar David Friedrich painting (‘the Wanderer above the Sea of Fog’) and thinking ‘what is this person looking at here?’.
JETHRO TURNER— Ralph has called the show ‘May You Live In Interesting Times’. How did you feel that works as a concept and title? Were you responding to that in a way?
DOMINIQUE GONZALEZ-FOERSTER— I think it’s really good he chose this title. I think the Biennale still seems super disconnected from the times we’re in, and I think that art world has to change a lot. This whole travelling, flying around – it seems it’s not in tune anymore. It’s definitely interesting times, when you think that as humans we’ve destroyed so much. And we’re completely unable to coexist with all the other beings on the planet. I mean I have the feeling that there is now an awareness that ‘radical’ artwork should also be intersectional in that way. Ralph is aware that we’re in a moment of deep change, even if some of those changes are still underground. But the times we had, where it’s like when you watch Mad Men, and you see people drinking and smoking, and they have a picnic and they leave all the garbage on the grass…
JETHRO TURNER— Do you want to explore further how we can move through space in your VR work?
DOMINIQUE GONZALEZ-FOERSTER— Of course, it’s just that I didn’t have the time! So this is really a very first, small room that could lead to other spaces, and a series of ways to experience them. I’ve read Adam Thirlwell’s article about Alejandro Iñárritu’s VR piece at Fondazione Prada. It’s a piece about migrants crossing the border between Mexico and where you experience really physical elements. So I don’t know what’s next, I’m really curious.
JETHRO TURNER— Within the artwork there’s an element of chance, where you as an artist are allowing software to make certain decisions. And that’s taking place in the contemporary moment, where airplane computers are making decisions about things and plunging themselves out of the sky.
DOMINIQUE GONZALEZ-FOERSTER— You’re right it’s almost a collaboration with the technology, and it’s also accepting the element of chance. The audience-based aspect is very important. Which is maybe also why I like this medium – it’s playing with the idea of the relation with the audience. It’s because you can’t be more explicit than when you see someone, the viewer with a headset. I think the image is very clear about what they’re doing. In an almost caricaturish way.
JETHRO TURNER — Yes, the people experiencing the work in VR can look kind of silly from the outside.
DOMINIQUE GONZALEZ-FOERSTER— Yeah they look strange. Because, you know, you have to imagine you’re looking at something that from inside looks larger. But from outside it looks very small. It can be such a strange paradox.
“Endodrome” is on view until November 24 at the Arsenale, Venice.
Photo Andrea Rossetti