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Laurent Grasso

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Warning : Side Effects

by Claire Jacquet

A camera lingers on a crowd circling around an event it fails to encompass. Through this row of backs turned on us, one can spot signs indicating the scene is set in “another place”: a heterogeneous and primarily masculine population, faces sometimes turning to face the camera lens (indifferent or concerned that its presence could spoil the gathering), an outdoor public space in a Northern African or Middle Eastern country. No beginning, no end: the structure of the film is rooted in no scenario; the only noticeable evolution is in the camera’s circular move as it skirts round the circle without ever getting close to the heart of this encounter. Grasso produces slow and moving images dilated and stretched in time. A seemingly unfathomable presence. The only scene shaped according to the pattern of Deleuze’s refrain (ritournelle) (1) oozes a fluidity and a complexity amidst which image and sound are as mute as the other. A muffled and uterine noise reminiscent of a human breath brings about confusion at the border between inner and outer world, exposing the viewer to an un-tranquility digest. Paradoxically enough, the title of this video by Laurent Grasso states “Soyez les bienvenus” (“Welcome”) thus showing that the filmmaker adopts the stance of the stranger: the point of view of an outsider who can only grasp things through their appearance. This film can be seen as an abrupt reply to the utopia of traveling or as the dark side of Otherness (the Other as inexorably alien to oneself. Though slow-paced and smooth, those images could not be less peaceful. Indeed, they follow the rhythm of expectation, suspension, of a “latent violence, right before the explosion”. The camera is constantly sparking off eye-contact and motions as it interacts with this coalition that won’t take it in. And through this situation of default relationship the filmmaker stigmatizes the impossibility to visualize “the object to be fought”, the “birth of a threat”, Grasso remarks. “What appeals to me in filming these images is to fill them with a more global reality, to fictionalize elements without even bothering to respect their proper nature”, he explains (2). Taking up the infiltration method, Grasso endeavors to shed light upon unexplored areas of “phenomena” in order to question their meaning. For what Soyez les bienvenus deals with is first of all the non-validation of a piece of information. That said, what does confronting oneself to a postponed meaning come down to? How can we take the ambiguousness into account and go beyond it? How powerful is our mental ability to grasp limitation, incompatibility and paradox? Or, through this shield-like shot – although we discover its absurdity and feel the subsequent frustration – we already perceive the logic at work because the latter works out a world, a state of this subterranean and nebulous world. What is there to see when there is nothing to see? The both reassuring and terrifying human ability to get organized spontaneously and at anytime like a centripetal force despite the political attempts to dominate the public space. More accurately? A slice of the Arabic population of which we often only know the anonymous part. A country engrossed in its societal choices, torn between the liberal model and the traditional one, which rules and seems to dominate the other one by rejecting it. How can we address an omnipresent and burning issue without provoking a conflict? How can we refer to an identified community without personifying this identity? The way the filmed subjects are put into orbit, added to the indefinite point of view of the cameraman, leads to the emergence of an anonymous conscience spreading out like a force of emanation or symbolism. This wall made of human backs blocks our view of the horizon, thus putting two cultures back-to-back. Entirely devoid of Manichean opposition, this scene allows the elements at play to interact with each other, suspended in time, without resolving anything. In an interview, French historian Alexandre Adler stated: “Since 9/11, the earth is no longer visible we’ve entered a period of human navigation) […]. Old landmarks no longer exist […], we are at the mercy of a sea which, amid its offshore jaunts, does not give us enough clues to find our way in relation to it.”(3).
The series called Mes Actrices (My Actresses) deals with another kind of confrontation. Laurent Grasso chooses the opposite method, taking position on the street to film women with whom he establishes eye contact. This time the encounter is frontal, bilateral and the target audience strictly female: stolen, paparazzi-like images backed by mellow melodies built around provocation and the challenge of sustaining a gaze; seductive women tricked by their own power of seduction. Beyond the contradictory feelings of fascination and reprobation supposedly aroused by those scenes, Laurent Grasso fiddles once again with the mediatization of the man on the street – or shall I say the woman – to “take these images towards an imagination turning the individual into a character and going as far as making him/her into a character totally remote from whom he/she truly are, without harming him/her in the process.” This process is a transmutation leading the viewer to an active mode of perception. Disturbing images (Mes Actrices / My Actresses) or discouraging images (Soyez les bienvenus / Welcome): How can we appropriate them, think of oneself as part of them, invest oneself in) them? How can we create our own story outside of the frames imposed on us? Mes Actrices (My Actresses) participates in creating a breach into this visual academism complying with the strictly-regulated social masquerade. Abnormality and weakness breaking into the normalized cycle of reality’s well-disciplined appearances offers the subject – and subjectivity – the possibility to emerge, to break free from an all too often univocal interpretation.
In Du Soleil dans les yeux (Eyes Glaring with Sunshine), one sees a series of short sentences scrolling down against a basic screen featuring a mountainscape reminiscent of an advertisement for a brand of mineral water. Taking the billboard upside down, Grasso inverts its support and image – evoking balance, well-being, and purity in the collective unconscious and aiming at informing or warning in order to reassure. The rocky slope serves as an onscreen trace and proves nothing. The image shakes imperceptibly, adding a feeling of dizziness to the deciphering of the information: “ Les ultrasons sont d’autant plus dangereux qu’ils ne peuvent être perçus, cependant ils peuvent provoquer les lésions internes importantes et irréversibles pour l’oreille ” (“Ultrasounds are even more dangerous than originally thought because they are invisible to the naked eye ; however, they can cause permanent internal injury to the ear”) or even “ Avec des champs parfaitement contrôlés, un voyage à travers un vortex espace-temps et son retour vers la date initiale peuvent être possibles ” (“provided one has the fields perfectly under control, one can travel through a time-space vortex and come back to the original date of departure”) etc. Du Soleil dans les yeux (Eyes Glaring with Sunshine) swings between two excessive behaviors: the authoritarian character of para-scientific formulae and the wavering nature of the image, thus leaving it up to the viewer – stuck in a state of total ambivalence – to tell right from wrong. Designed to fill up the space with muted vibrations, the soundtrack takes these assertions to the verge of paranoia, assertions stating that the brain, the behavior, the matter (among others) can easily be modified… Pacifism of the device versus unwanted side effects. In the form of a drop-down menu, the film distances things from each other, thus creating situations in which one is confronted with danger (of contamination, of destruction…), while favoring confrontations with image and sound with a view to questioning these very tools, a common practice in this era cankered by incessantly renewed warnings from the media coalition.
Stigmatizing the fact that nowadays it is becoming increasingly difficult to actually live one’s own experiences (they can now be downloaded anywhere by anybody), Grasso spices up his works with doubt and worry in order to shake the scaffold of our usual thought process. Shot from an unlikely and unstable point of view, Tout est possible (Everything is Possible) resembles this inner journey… to the end of the night. Running after a (barely outlined) character, the camera captures the latter’s swaying pace, chanted by the extraction of a rough and chaotic thought in the shape of a monologue – or rather a kind of dialogue in which the character’s familiarity with ghosts would lead one to think he/she is subject to an exulting delirium. An exteriorized inner monologue, a kind of “mirror-like dialogue in which speaking grills are framed by a single mind, unable to go beyond it”, as Éric Mangion asserted (4). The plot of this movie lies in this flimsy thought (propelled by the sound-editing, that grows faint and lets wandering, confusion and paradox surface. The aim here is to give flesh to these motions sporadically imploding within the mind: images, ready-made expressions seemingly taming subterranean volcanoes but actually subsiding under their eruption; the very “tropisms” described by French writer Nathalie Sarraute. In this untamable maelstrom, the intimate/local (magic, superstition, illegal emigration, fantasy) blends with the impersonal/global (the CIA, the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Muslims, Christians, Jews). Tout est possible is set in a conscience outside-of-oneself where the remnants of irrationality and intuition and the extreme importance attributed to them stand in stark contrast with the extreme simplicity of the individual harboring them. Intertwining stories tangled up in one another, their features echoing Sarraute’s words: “No need for anybody anymore. Only words. Words springing up from anywhere, dust particles lingering in the air we breathe, microbes, viruses… The threat looms over all of us. You and me. None of us can be assured to stay sound. Banal words not even addressed to you” (5).
Laurent Grasso’s videos go against the grain of the logic of directive or authoritarian representations. Opening up to a new type of duration, they do not freeze language or images but strive to initiate a cultural jam taking root in a series of psychological effects more so than social or political facts). In doing so, Grasso endows his subjects with a peculiar posture, held in a sort of floating and shifting discrepancy. Special attention is paid to weak, second-rate and even unwitting signs, and it tends to evolve from infra-perception to supra-perception requiring a widespread, spiral-like reading mode. To make Le Temps manquant (The Time Missing), he films a paused soccer game, following a meandering line winding amid the players. As a system and a flawless social regulation device, soccer is drained of its competitive dimension, and ceases to sustain the illusory relational mode based upon the ideological hijacking imposed by the sports industry upon its participants. More concretely, the topic of soccer has but little importance and merely serves as a visual pretext to move a territory towards fiction and introduce distortion into it. How can one disconnect the subject from its representation? Can one play without wanting to win? Can one film without playing? “Évacuer l’image”, Laurent Grasso repeats. From Soyez les bienvenus, he seems to keep in mind only a “blind” shot and in Du Soleil dans les yeux, he steered video in his own way by using the screen as a billboard. His aim is to “work out installations where tension arises from absence, from a game between a piece of information and the path leading to it” and to define a kind of “calculation of the effects”, as Rancière said (6), all the while allotting some room for the unknown and the unexpected. His images remind one of delayed counter-fires loosening the stranglehold imposed by image-related modes of conditioning, the conformity of which is based upon a rather “inclusive” mode. His images invite the viewer to drift away, at the heart of a reality transfigured in space and time where one explores on a mental level. And then, one can say that there still exist unexplored sensitive territories that one can reach and structure only if creating new language forms and making sure those experiences do not develop instantaneously through representation.

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1. Made into concept by Deleuze and Guattari, the refrain (“ritournelle”) – if we can briefly sum up some of its principles, that is – stands at a crossroad, a point of interaction between chaos and the world, between the pre-conceptual and the conceptual. It is a dynamic moment oscillating up and down, defined as an “introductive pattern” (only occurring during a silence that it breaks solely to announce something from which it is different. The refrain surfaces as the fixation of a focal point around which revolve, in their antagonism, the steady centre (>center) and the threatening surrounding chaos. Cf. Mille Plateaux, Paris: Minuit, 1980, pp.382-433.
2. Interview with the author, August 2002.
3. Alexandre Adler, Construire n° 27, 07/02/02.
4. For further reading about the inner monologue, see Éric Mangion’s “Les Lauriers sont coupés”, Trouble n° 2, Autumn 2002.
5. Nathalie Sarraute, Entre La vie et la mort, Paris: Gallimard, collection Folio, p.55.
6. Jacques Rancière, interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist, catalogue Traversées, ARC, Paris-Musées 2001.