Michel Gauthier, The time of the medium

          A man crouched among rocks, his feet in the water of a mountain stream. He has a tape recorder slung over his shoulder. He’s wearing headphones and his left hand is holding a microphone towards the flowing water. This is Laurent Montaron’s The Stream (2007), a large-format colour photograph which allies several of the artist’s fundamental themes. Firstly, the notion of a quest finding expression in a symbolic activity: the person in the photo is recording, intently, trying to capture something which a form of representation—the analogue information assembled by the ironoxide particles on the magnetic tape—must later attempt to convey. Secondly, the overt display of the device that makes such activity possible: the historic reel-to-reel Nagra 4.2 taperecorder. And lastly the choice of a setting—here the great outdoors—which, to cite Walter Benjamin on the subject ofmountains, could be described as auratic, and whose perspective draws the eye towards the horizon on this summer afternoon.

           Still or moving, Montaron’s images often make play with the viewer’s interpretative skills. How are we to understand the point of light that focuses our gaze in the scene taking placeon the rugged coastline of Sans titre (2008) a ? Is it purely a matter of chance, no more than a reflected ray of sunlight? Is it a signal sent by the figure placed just outside a cave and all but obscured by the brightness? And if so, what signal? Set thus on the terrain of fiction, of narrative—i.e. of a depictive, meaning-fuelled mechanism—such images fire the viewer’s urge to interpret, but only to immediately thwart it, leave it unsatisfied. If a photograph like this one sends out a sign, it is perhaps—and above all—that of a refusal to signify. Some of Montaron’s non-photographic works also point up this default-of-meaning tropism: Silent Key (2009), for instance,with its tape recorder broadcasting a message in Morse code at the base of a wall of bricks. Either, as in the majority of cases, the visitor is incapable of deciphering the message and meaning is totally eclipsed by a purely rhythmic auditory sequence; or his knowledge of Morse will give him a grasp ofthe succession of dots and dashes, in which case he will hear a summons to suspend all communication •. A meaningless pulsing or the deliberate shutdown of all messaging: these are the alternatives offered by Silent Key—whose title is also the term used for a recently deceased radio operator. Screened side by side, the two films making up BALBVTIO (2009) speak solely of interpretation—of decipherment. A non-chronological montage recounts the story of a child trying todecode a message found on a carrier pigeon he has shot in what appears to be an abandoned church. With the aid of an esperanto dictionary he has with him the boy puts enormous patience and energy into translating the brief text. The fewwords jotted into his notebook provide no understanding of the message which, however, is finally conveyed by a whispering voice: “We had forgotten that the crossing was supposed to lead to the shore, and we were still trying to make our way at night.The tide had taken us beyond the borders which, in the fog, were defined only by the sound of our own words.” The message has been translated. But even so, what have we made of it?

          In the mid-1960’s Conceptual Art had made the dictionary the emblem of language triumphant: Joseph Kosuth’s Art as Idea as Idea blow-ups proudly claimed to provide themeaning of anything and everything. The dictionary in BALBVTIO clearly lacks this power. True, the child has translated themessage, but the viewer will remain uncertain as to the implicationsof the news brought by the ill-fated bird, just as his eyewill be unable to choose between the left-hand and right-handscreens, each of them showing different takes of the story. Atthe same time the deliberate distancing from Kosuth’s positivism to be found in a work like BALBVTIO has nothing to do with a certain postmodern nihilism—that of Stefan Brüggemann,for instance, to limit the choice to an artist of Montaron’s generation. In punk Neo-Conceptualism meaning takes its leave amid fascinated transactions with disenchantment; while for the creator of Silent Key or BALBVTIO its absence is the corollary of a process of “re-enchantment”.

          The world lost its enchantment when mankindmoved from immersion in nature to transformation of it:when the compulsion to appropriate and master the world took over from an attitude of awed respect before its intimateorder. When Montaron’s images engage with nature—forests, mountains, the sea—they intimate a reality that is neitherto be understood nor subjugated. The windswept uplandof Rounded with a Sleep (2006) b is not there solely for aesthetic evaluation; rather it would seem to be a slice of territory imbued with a meaning contradictorily bent on self-concealment—with the presence of an absence. Thus the game being played by the group of teenagers—a loss of consciousness deliberately induced by suffocation—takes ona ritual feel: as if fainting, that moment of climax, were the only way of celebrating the otherness of a place not inevitably doomed to exploitative appropriation. Todtnauberg (2007) offers another mountainous landscape, presented this time in the form of a concertina-style book like Ed Ruscha’s Every Buildingon the Sunset Strip (1966). But where Ruscha showed buildingafter building, Montaron homes in on a single chalet. Noordinary chalet, however: this wooden cabin in the snow of the Black Forest is none other than the one where Martin Heidegger took long breaks when experiencing “the default of Being’ sun concealment as such for the first time as an advent of Beingitself” ; the one where Paul Celan visited him in 1967 to hearthe verdict on Nazism he expected of the philosopher, a verdict that was not forthcoming. What makes a photograph like this one strange? For those not acquainted with the philosophical history of Todtnauberg, the image—several images,in fact, covering a period from daylight to darkness – is no more than that of a house with shutters closed in a romanticallysublime or sublimely romantic setting. But why does itretain its mysterious charge even for someone who knows it isHeidegger’s cabin? Doubtless because of the enduring gap between cultural knowledge and the irreducible anonymity, the fundamental mutism of this photographed slice of reality. The disquiet comes not from the historic memory attached tothe site (“Just imagine, Heidegger lived there!”), but on the contrary from the site’s ability to resist cultural subjugation: in other words from the default of meaning. An image like thisplays on a very subtle dialectic: firstly the memory of a historic figure seems to “inhabit” the site; and secondly, what actually happens is the opposite, the possible reenchantment of a landscape that knowledge had disenchanted.

          The mountain motif which recurs several times inthe Montaron oeuvre can perhaps be clarified by one of hismost singular works: a printed page bearing the number 213.The work’s title fills in the necessary background: Hypothétique page de la fin du chapitre V du Mont Analogue de René Daumal(2009). As we know, Daumal’s death meant his book was never completed: and its fifth, final and unfinished chapterwas intended to deal with the extremely unusual languageof mountaineering guides. So Montaron puts into circulationa page that could be one of the missing ones. Mount Analogue,rendered invisible by the “curvature of space”, is the supremeallegory of an enchanted place. And Daumal’s definition of artas “analogical mountaineering” provides us with a usefulhint as to the reasons for Montaron’s penchant for mountains.

          The art of the last century was swept by a powerfulwave of secularisation, with avant-gardes from Constructivismto Relationism looking to abolish the boundary betweenart and life. Other trends—deconstructive painting and structuralcinema, for instance—were out to lay bare the basiccomponents and primary parameters of specific art forms. Secularisation of the work of art was also furthered by contextualisation—by the work’s interaction with its exhibition site.It was in these and other, often contradictory ways that artparadoxically strove to deny its difference and to render itself, in every sense of the term, transparent. The Montaron oeuvre plainly refuses to align itself with this move towards secularisation;on the contrary, it is shot through with pointers to an antithetical tropism, to an artistic mission centred not onexposing and elucidating, but on veiling and obscuring. Were we to try to clarify the artist’s stance by setting his films in agiven tradition, it is clearly towards Tarkovsky rather thanWarhol that we would turn. Which is to say that it is in thename of a “reenchantment” of art that Montaron provides uswith objects, images and sounds that reject all meaningful transparency.

          Bringing this reenchantment enterprise to fruitionrequires a range of resources: the narrative too brief or theimage too unclear to impart meaning, for instance. But alsothe strange natural phenomenon, like the fish’s cardiac muscle, still pumping away even after its excision, as in the16mm film Pace (2009) . And even more so the dreamlike cinematic treatment of an historic event, as when the admirable What remains is future (2006) takes us through the 1937 wreck of the Hindenburg in a little over five minutes. Shot anaglyphically with two cameras, the film is blurred, its images appearing slightly doubled-up. After catching fire the dirigible continues its slow passage across the screen, then disappears. Thus recreated the famous disaster no longerbelongs to history. Sometimes Montaron’s scenographyallows him to deploy the signs of an art bent on a new pact with the obscure and the secret. When the enigmatic Key(2009) e – a film showing a telegraphist’s hand in action—was shown by the Frac Champagne-Ardenne , it could only beseen through portholes cut into a closed door: reenchantment through separation . With Somniloquie (2002) , a work comprising a photograph and a vinyl record, the artist turns to parapsychology. The scene is a curious one: a young man, linked by headphones to an imposing Studer-Revox PR99 tape machine, listens to the recorded words of a woman talking in her sleep as she lies only a few feet away. The somniloquy has an artistic ancestor in the form of experiments with hypnotic sleep carried out by Crevel, Desnos and Péret and recounted by André Breton in The Lost Steps . In its own way the Montaron work revives one of the methods via which automatism, that notion so central to Surrealism, was actualised in aconsummated flirtation with spiritualism. An art form consciously distancing itself from both the modern and postmodern manifestations of disenchantment has a natural affinity with this kind of mediumistic activity; Somniloquieconfirms this, as does the film Readings (2005) , whose slow, unsettling exploration of the structure and mechanisms of the observatory in Meudon is overlaid with subtitles taken from the blurbs of New York street fortune tellers. In Will there be a sea battle tomorrow? (2008) we witness an experiment with clairvoyance and precognition. Tests are carried out with the Psi-recorder, a machine formerly used by German parapsychology investigators and complete with luminous control panel, electrical cracklings, microphone, loudspeakers, monitor and reel-to-reel recording. When it comes to disturbing the senses and sustaining the latent and the inexplicable, nothing can match the paranormal. Another,strictly contemporary piece by the artist, La Reine au-dessus ducreux de ma main (2008), conjures up divinatory practices with a photograph of a hand casting knuckle bones: in certain civilisations this was once a means of telling the future. Yet at the same time works like Somniloquie or Will there be a seabattle tomorrow? are also pointers to what, in Montaron’swork, constitutes the true singularity of reenchantment. Somniloquie: in the exhibition space a turntable, a vinyl disc, an amplifier and speakers. Will there be a sea battle tomorrow?: a clairvoyant young woman and the Psi-recorder. A medium, then, but media as well. One of the idiosyncrasies of the Montaron aesthetic is his close interaction with machines for recording, producing or transmitting. Many of the artist’s still and moving images testifyto this propensity: the tape recorders in Somniloquie and The Stream, the videotapes in Gordischer Knoten, the projection cabin in Divertimento (2001), the dictaphone in Candy says I’d like to know completely what others so discreetly talkabout (2004), the spotlights in After (2007), the telegraphist’s instrument in Key and the Psi-recorder in Will there bea sea battle tomorrow?. Not to mention the workings of anastronomical observatory as revealed to us by the spell binding Readings. Such devices are not merely represented in Montaron’soeuvre, however: they are often actually, objectivally present, notably in Pace, whose functioning 16mm projectormust be just as visible as the film of the little beating heart; and in this context it too looks like a living organ. Similarly with Somniloquie: in front of the photograph, as already mentioned, is a turntable. The sonosphere, based on a twelve sided Elipson speaker (Sans titre, 2006), again confronts the viewer with a transmission device—one which, in offering an orchestra not playing, but tuning up, focuses onthe part of the concert in which the message truly is themedium. And as the orchestra spurns the A of the oboe infavour of the dial tone of a telephone—another media tool ina non-communication situation—we realise how emblematic a creation like this can be of the overall oeuvre; not for nothing was this the first work the visitor saw on entering the exhibitiondevoted to Montaron at the Institute of Contemporary Artin Villeurbanne. Doppler (2009) falls into the same category,with its Leslie rotary speaker • emitting an initially amusing sardonic laugh which quickly becomes disturbing. Then there’s Bruit blanc (2006) and its Doepfer modular synthesiser, a small metal plate fitted with buttons and jacks and with various wires plugged into it, the result being arushing noise. A fan sets up a draught in front of the images of After—a draught we know is important to Montaron as a reader of Daumal, because it provides access to Mount Analogue —and another device sends the sound of wind through the exhibitionspace. This breath of fresh air is a corollary of the reenchantment of art.

          Among the pieces featuring functioning devices, one especially deserving of attention is Analogy of the divided line (2007), which makes use of the venerable EMT 240 Gold Foil reverb. Two microphones transfer the sound towards a sheet of ultra-fine gold foil suspended vertically in front oftwo speakers, the result being a very slight delay. The art is thas removed the reverb’s casing, so as to put the mechanism on display and make the device sensitive to ambient sound—viewers’ voices, for example—in a way that produces a cave like resonance. The gold foil and the enigmatic character of the machine—we can readily identify a tape recorder, a turntable or a spotlight, but the inside of a reverb is another kettle of fish—make the object in question highly singular. Nonetheless the effect obtained, while still perplexing for the visitor, makes the device’s function clear and thus justifies its presence. Conversely, with Melancholia (2005) the exhibition of an apparatus takes a different turn, in that this one, though functioning, produces no sound. The device is a late-1970s echo chamber, presented in a niche set low down in awall. The magnetic tape undulates its way through, but to no avail: nothing can be heard. This provides various grounds forthe reference to melancholy: the memory of a mythical age ofstudio recording, the pointlessness of a machine renderedun reproductive, the sight of a tape inexorably unreeling liketime passing. Melancholia testifies to the artistic role currently played by apparatuses put on open display.

          During what must now be considered a by gone age,anti-illusionism and disenchantment went hand in hand, but studio props like the spotlights in After can now appear in shot or in the exhibition space without the work’s charm, enchantmentand poetry being dissipated . Given the broadening of the field of vision and the disclosing of the media equipment involved, a modern or postmodern set of standards would havecalled for total spectator disbelief in the sight of the soldiercrouching in the snow, or at the very least for the image’s beingtaken as an allegory of disillusionment. Such is not the casehere: on the contrary, by becoming visible the spotlights“enchant” the scene. Under the impact of two phenomenaMcLuhan’s famous dictum “The medium is the message” maynow be taking on a fresh meaning: on the one hand avant-gardeart, having lost faith in its ontological distinctiveness, hassought to abolish the boundary separating it from life; and onthe other, as Guy Debord and Jean Baudrillard have shown,reality, under the sway of the media revolution and the everencroachingentertainment industry, has become a mereimage of itself. In other words, a flawless chiasma has takenplace, with art tending to become life—reality—as lifeincreasingly takes on the appearance of art, or at least of a representation,an image In this context the studio and backstagehave come to seem a kind of weirdly protected interzone. Itis no easy task to maintain the illusion of reality here—the presenceof all the paraphernalia of spectacle makes it virtuallyimpossible—and at the same time the universal transformationof reality into image doesn’t function here either, for this isthe very place where the spectacle takes shape, where the instrumentsof its production function; indeed, it may be that onlyactual media machinery is still immune to the media. Which iswhy this zone and the devices that inhabit it are now the privilegedrecourse of a venture in reenchantment, in auratic rebirth.

          Seen from this angle the presentation of an apparatuslike Melancholia’s message-free echo chamber takes on the status of a paradigm: the machine for producing visual orsound images can, as here, remain mute. And the more it soremains, the greater its aura. Electronic snow, white noise,dancing potentiometers, unreeling magnetic tapes, blinkingindicator lights, clicking projectors—these make up the lastrefuge of an art which is seeking not to become life, but rather,to paraphrase Robert Smithson, to make a hole in it •. One ofthe great illustrations of this move to autonomisation bymedia apparatuses is unquestionably Rodney Graham’sRheinmetall/Victoria 8 (2003): an impressively large 35mm projector sends out images of a 1930s typewriter which, after a series of irreproachably objectivist shots, is gradually and inabsolute silence mantled with white powder. Machinesshowing machines: it is on a purely media-inflected landscape—the typewriter keyboard and hood—that the snow accumulates,more poetic than ever . Melancholia belongs to thesame era of aesthetic sensibility: the ultimate auratic object isthe medium which no message can now vie with for theviewer’s attention.

          At a time when, with all the obvious hitches it entails, a non regressive exit from Post-Modernism is being negotiated, Laurent Montaron’s oeuvre is a precious landmark. It draws ontwo strategies: the first consists in deferring meaning whilesometimes foregrounding the uncertainty, not to say theimpossibility, of interpretation and decipherment; the secondhas brought media instruments into the field of the imageand the exhibition space. Distressing and non-expression ofthe message, displaying and scenographising of the medium:such is the dual gambit Montaron’s art has opted for so as tohave done with postmodern disillusion and disenchantment. Melancholia’s space-echo has no need to emit a message insound: the magic power now belongs to the medium.

Michel Gauthier