Ann Veronica Janssens

This Very Shining Moment

…faithful to my habits as a philosopher of science, I tried to consider images without attempting personal interpretation.  Little by little, this method, which has in its favour scientific prudence, seemed to me to be an insufficient basis on which to found a metaphysics of the imagination… Only phenomenology – that is to say, consideration of the onset of the image in an individual consciousness – can help us to restore the subjectivity of images and to measure their fullness, their strength and their transsubjectivity.
Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space

I’ve been having trouble with my eyes lately.  Nothing serious, but experts have been peering through my lenses, systematically dazzling me.  It all started with dark spots – tiny moving shadows flicking across the white page, the glowing screen, the blue sky.

So I put my head in the brace and direct my gaze where instructed while painfully bright tracers from the doctor’s examination lamp skip across my vision, while my eye tries to focus on the beams bouncing in unaccustomed ways across its inner surface.  Then drops dilating my pupils (for the easy perusal of my retinas). Sitting again in the diffuse sunshine of the waiting room, I’m seeing with all the spectral haze and failing focus of an organ that’s been anaesthetised.

To look at and with the eye, rather than through it, to experience its viscous form, its artifacts and failures, its lodging in a body, is a key part of Ann Veronica Janssens’ practice. The co-incidence of my opthalmalogical episode and my first experience of Janssens’ work made me approach her installation at Artspace as something like that physical examination: me peering in at myself peering out.

Accounts of her art often describe encounters with spaces of her design.  Mieke Bal, in particular, is nervous about this approach: she tells her story of passage into a foggy room, then casts it into question, then tells another story about another work. But this consideration of the individual, embodied encounter somehow seems the only way.  Photographs flatten, theoretical approaches hedge.  Perhaps a diagram would do it? Narrative seems to be such a narrow slice through the experience, one of so many forking paths.  This is the vexed, and also the beautiful, thing about ephemeral, spatialised practices: how to communicate them?

Entering the gallery stairwell a voice bounces off the walls – a NASA scientist speaking of the Cassini spacecraft’s passage through the rings of Saturn: “Although the ring gaps appeared empty, they weren’t. Innumerable bits of ring dust were waiting for Cassini… Each time a dust particle hit Cassini the impact produced a puff of plasma, a tiny cloud of ionised gas… there were as many as 680 puffs a second.”  The narration is bracketed by recording of the tiny explosions, a bubbling of radio waves.

Puff. A little word for a minute explosion of plasma, of ionised gas, of rock and metal vapourising. The product of planetary specks – the size of particles in cigarette smoke, according to the narrator – meeting a larger, more purposive interplanetary speck.  The work raises the issue of scale, of emptiness that isn’t, and raises the curtain on Janssens’ ideas of moments that are ‘monumental, but at the same time nothing’.

Aren’t we all made of spacedust?

Puff has an affinity with Soufflés, a 1995 sound piece made for an old tobacco warehouse in Dunkirk. Sighs echo around the large building.  These exhalations are more intimate and embodied than the quantised, fractured digital fizzing of the puffs.  Wordless, yet communicative, the sighing warehouse recalls the original purpose of the building, the exhalation that the cigarette fog makes visible. The dramatisation of breath is part of the paradox that lends smoking its power, making public the in- and ex-halations that keep us alive, all the while poisoning the organ responsible.

Space research is utopian, but entwined in a vast military-industrial complex. The Cassini project itself is a joint venture between NASA, the European and the Italian Space Agencies. Astronomy provides a different baseline for our imagining.  It is almost impossible to conceive of galaxies turning, to picture the vastness of space, and cook dinner, or walk across a room, but this familiar immensity is part of the astronomer’s everyday.

The tale of Cassini’s passage through the rings of Saturn is a reminder of interplanetary space as something traversable, something other than the black dome of night above us, dead stars shining.  There’s a beautiful hubris in those small spacecraft, sent off on journeys that take decades or centuries to complete. Out beyond the edge of the solar system, Voyager, the most distant human object, still sends back its attenuated stream of data.

Janssens’ 2004 exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Marseille was named 8’23”.  It takes eight minutes and twenty-three seconds for the light emitted by the sun to reach earth.  At this scale light has duration, a thickness. Think too of that other famous duration – longer than a pop song, shorter than a coffee break – John Cage’s 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence.  Or rather, of a pianist sitting at the keyboard, and an auditorium full of rustlings, coughing and murmurs. This intervention had a theatricality, but pointed outwards, to the space surrounding the performer.

There is a similar understated theatricality to Janssen’s installations.  As she describes it: “I make a set, but then I have no control over what happens – nobody does.” The work is set in motion by the artist, tended, watered and maintained by the gallery staff, who turn the lights on and feed the fog machine its syrupy mix.  To build her situations, Janssens uses scientific data and the rarefied products of research and development, along with repurposed everyday technologies – lights from discos and movie sets, coloured gels, smoke machines.

After climbing the Artspace stairs through the reverberating digital burbles of Saturn’s rings, there’s a sudden shift from the bright slanting light of early autumn to the darkened gallery.  A mist fills the space.  Two beams cross the large room, one white, one lemon yellow. Rectangular panes of light shine from theater spots mounted low in the corner opposite the door. The oblique patches they form on the walls are soft-edged from the fog and the distance across the room, prismatic at the edges.

Unlike Janssens’ previous indoor fog installations, which were dense roomfuls of coloured vapour, the fog does not completely obscure; it creates, rather, an atmosphere, a slight impediment.  It doesn’t solidify the space, but makes the movement of air and light visible, thickened slightly. When dense, the fog acts to disaggregate sensation.  The physical experience of space and the visual perception of it are unhinged.  A bright but blank room recalls the perceptual tricks of whiteout, where indirect daylight and snowy conditions can lead to deadly misapprehensions of scale and distance.

In Green White Study the beams shine across open space of Artspace’s main gallery, reflecting off the floor, moving, diverging and scattering. The light outlines the vortices of fog moving in the air currents. There is a slight, strange, chemical smell from the black box of the fog machine. Crossing the room to stand by the spots, I can feel the body of the lights radiating heat, like a live creature.

In a small room off the main gallery,  AX is a sunburst array of white light emitting diodes.  Designed for use in the film industry, this Ringlite ™ is a convenient, portable halo for mounting around a camera lens. Janssens has hung it on the wall; it casts a very pale violet glow across the room.

Iris-like in form, the bright white points of light live on the retina for many moments afterward – green, with a purple afterimage. These moving, swinging after-images make perceptible the flickering, restless journey of my eyes as they move over the dimmed gallery.  Although my brain smoothes my perception of my eyes’ saccadic hops around the space, the super-imposition of the lights’ dot-pattern shows the movement clearly; there’s a visible disparity between the lingering image on my retina, which drifts slowly, and my conscious vision, scanning the room, lingering on points of interest.

Janssens sculptural practice addresses this eye, with its organic peculiarities, an eye firmly lodged in a body. Most simply, a poster for the 1997 Istanbul Biennale, distributed in the city market, invited people to gently press into their closed eyelids, evoking the sparkling, grainy and swarming closed-eye movies of phosphenes.

My eye, then, inspiralling, frictioning style-wise, being instrument for striking sparks, is bequeathed visions at every illumination it’s struck to create.
Stan Brackhage, Metaphors On Vision

Medieval explanations of vision had beams shooting out of the pupils, penetrating spaces and outlining objects like robot laser eyes. More contemporary understanding of sight describes the necessity of movement, of sensitivity to change, and the converse invisibility of that which is immobile and unchanging.  Then there’s the difference between the fovea, the small area of sharply focused colour vision, and the less colour perceptive, more light and motion sensitive peripheral vision.

Experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage emphasized the vast range of visual experience through manipulating film stocks, painting and collaging directly onto film and disrupting the framed-up stylings of the mainstream Hollywood tradition.  He emphasised the chasm between the camera eye and the eye of the human viewer.  Similarly, Janssens insertions and, in the case of the fog installations, deletions, question both our normative seeing and our embodied way of experiencing spaces.

Ciel (2003) is a projection of slowly shifting images of the sky, relayed from a video camera mounted on the roof. The image fills the end wall of Artspace’s long gallery.  Janssen originally made the work for the Brussels offices of Belgacom, Belgium’s largest telecommunications corporation.  The remote camera was located on a sky-bridge between two office towers, an elevated passage for executives only.  The work brought this elevated perspective down to earth, a projection in the foyer making the aerial view from the top of the office tower available to the 8000 workers in the complex. In its original corporate environment, the work slyly offers the usual panacea that is foyer sculpture:  artworks mollifying the glinting threshold of the corporation.

Does the sky look different from 30 stories up?  Ciel (French for sky, or heaven) offers a literal view of the airspace, a moving picture of the sky just above the horizon, full of invisible transmissions, a shot of the operative space of wireless communications.  The executive cloud-view could be a metaphor for commercialisation of the ether, the transmission parcels and satellite links that make up an indispensable part of the network operated by the corporation.

In the work’s installation at Artspace, the weather is once more brought indoors. Again, the work provides a view from a restricted zone (in this case the gallery roof) of a shared airspace. Today the sky is blue with white clouds, some plump, some vague, all vaporous, an almost archetypal sky.  Janssens describes the altered specificity of the work in Aotearoa, land of the long white cloud, and in Auckland, a city of inconstant weather and quickly shifting light.

Framing a patch of sky in landscape format, in the standard video aspect ratio of 4 by 3, the projection is mirrored by the shiny floor of the gallery, like a reflecting pool. The cloud-wall disrupts the architecture, cutting a view into the windowless gallery the same way the curtain glass of an office tower might.

The space is hushed, filled only with the steps of visitors moving through the gallery, the noise of the fan in the projector and the occasional eruptions of the fog machine.  The stillness emphasises the sounds of traffic moving outside the dark quiet space of the gallery.

The city is the indispensable context of collage and of the gallery space. Modern art needs the sound of traffic outside to authenticate it.
Brian O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube

Like the rustling audience of Cage’s piano piece, the urban hum beyond the walls is the setting and also in some ways the subject of the installation.  One of Janssens earlier fog pieces made this necessary urbanity more explicit by piping in slightly amplified sounds from the surrounding city.

Other works operate beyond the gallery.  Super Space, a series of 13 projects for Utrecht, made in 1999, operated in public and private spaces within that city  – from a change-filled pocket, to a pedestrian underpass, to a walled garden. As the artist declared her intentions: “Super Space emphasizes the experience of both the macro and the micro cosmos, of the space surrounding the space as well as the space within that space.”

One of these projects, Agoraphobia, provided large hand-held mirrors to visitors to St Willibrorders Church.  The mirrors enabled visitors to look down into the reflection of the soaring roof – a disorienting switch of perspective revealing the highly crafted psychological space of the church. Another in the series consisted of flexible liquid crystal panels flung around a garden.  The panels changed colour in response to shifts in heat, showing rainbow shadows, transforming infra-red radiation into the visible.  The heat shadows resembled oil patches, rainbows on the wet road.  Another intervention supplied placemats to the Festival Pavilion restaurant.  The mats were adorned with images of the electromagnetic fields surrounding fingerprints, little aura photographs accompanied by the legend ‘Your body doesn’t have clear borders.’

Horror Vacui, part of the artist’s contribution to the 1999 Venice Biennale took a thousand 100 Lire coins, machining off one side, leaving a shiny disc with the shallow concentric marks of the erasure.  The coins were then put into circulation.  In transforming the coins into artwork, Janssens invalidated them as calibrated tokens of exchange, making them worth both more and less.

At Artspace, the mediated sky of Ciel moves by invisible increments – stare at it and the changes are almost imperceptible, look away and back again (get into a conversation, perhaps), and the picture has changed completely. Technology frames and relays the image, transforming sunlight and water vapour into electrical impulses and light, atmosphere into information. The image is slightly noisy – there’s a little dither in the darker blue at the top of the frame, and the scan lines of the camera are clearly visible. There is a necessary delay built into the image, the hesitation between the sunlight falling on the charge coupled device of the camera-eye, the resulting electrical impulses traveling down a wire, transforming again into a beam of light, which is modulated by a liquid crystal array and focused onto the gallery wall. The light reflects off the white surface and into the eye of the viewer, from whence it is once again transformed into minute electrical impulses in the wet matter of the brain.

Weather is a commonplace, a safe topic of conversation. We are immersed in it, but still dote on its representations on the TV news. Airborne water is amenable to our imaginings, as well as meteorological categorisation. We can form clouds into representations.  Nam June Paik, in his 1984 text, ‘Art and Satellite’ ’quotes Thoreau, that promoter of American wilderness, “The telephone company is trying to connect Maine and Tennessee by telephone.  Even if it were to succeed, though, what would the people say to each other?  What could they possibly find to talk about?”.  Thoreau is baffled as to what interlocutors from different parts of the country might have to discuss.  But of course, as well as those functional telephonic exchanges, they will speak about the weather.  Paik continues: “Satellite art… must consider how to achieve a two-way connection between opposite sides of the earth; how to give a conversational structure to the art; how to master differences in time; how to play with improvisation, in-determinism, echoes, feedbacks, and empty spaces in the Cagean sense”…

An invention surely as world-changing in its time as telephones and satellites have been in ours, mirrors recur in Janssens work – laid on floors to reflect a painted ceiling, carried by visitors to a church, made from bus wheels and small change. Mirrors invert the familiar and throw light in unexpected places. In Nam June Paik’s 1974 work, TV Buddha, an antique bronze statue watches its own image on a television, a picture relayed via closed circuit by a video camera positioned behind the TV.  In Paik’s work, the Buddha gazes upon its own image in the very recent past. There is a loop, a slowing of time. The work is a meditative machine, reflecting eternally (as long as it’s switched on) back on itself. It is a technological mirror.

The image of the sky in Ciel is slippery, mirror-like.  It is transporting, a model of surveillance and an architectural device.  It mimics the doubling of space that mystified Thoreau, but which is now so familiar. Long-range conversation and vision at a distance are commonplaces of our telematic lives.  Surveillance cameras, video calling, web cams, all enable the co-existence of spaces within one another – the security footage of gallery entrance relayed to the gallery office, the slow-refreshing web cam image of the retreating tide on my computer desktop, the view from the roof.  Our days are studded with little reflections and loops of time and space, but the strangeness of it often escapes us.

A mirror inverts space, fog thickens it. Telecommunications saturate our consciousness, but there’s still that eerie delay when talking to friends on the other side of the world, the lag that speaks most eloquently about the vast distances between here and there. Ann Veronica Janssens’ work disrupts the everyday just enough to make these commonplaces new again. She uses the poetry of science, the ordinary magic of technology to clear a space, to make visible the slowness of light and the embodiment of colour.

1. Gaston Bachelard , The Poetics of Space, translated by John R Stilgoe, Beacon Press, Boston, 1992. p.xix
2. The artist, in conversation with the author, March 2006
3. William C. Wees, Light Moving in Time: Studies in the Visual Aesthetics of Avant-Garde Film, University of California Press, Berkley, 1992, p.93
4, Brian O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube: the Ideology of the Gallery Space, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1999. p.44
5. Artist’s Statement in Laurent Jacob (ed) Ann Veronica Janssens: A Different Image in Each Eye, La Lettre volée/ Espace 251 Nord, Brussels, 1999, p.120
6. Nam June Paik, “Art and Satellite” (1984) in Randall Packer and Ken Jordan (eds.) Multimedia: from Wagner to Virtual Reality, W.W. Norton and Company, New York, 2001, p.42

First Published in Artspace 1,  Clouds/Artspace, 2008, p. 105