Assistant Professor of Art History, Willamette University
The following discussion occurred on May 5, 2013, in the Montreal studio of electronic artist Pascal Dufaux.  For nearly a decade Dufaux has worked on an ongoing series of “Vision Machines” which encourage a heightened awareness of seeing and being seen, moving beyond the bounds of corporeal experience toward an envisioned machinic consciousness. The discussion with Abigail Susik focused upon questions of phenomenological perception, reception by the viewer, formal considerations, and historical influence.
Abigail Susik: What were some of your aims with a work like Vision Machine #2 (2009-ongoing)?
Pascal Dufaux: I wanted to create a device that allowed me to think about this puzzling reality that we are living in. That is why I tried to make a machine that is about neutrality. The machine is not about me. I don’t want the machine to express the weakness of human beings. I wanted something that is flawless, because when it is flawless it is something that is standing in front of you, it is not just talking about what is pathological and the idea that everything promises doom.
We are used to technology being tied to corporations or governments. I think as individuals, the world belongs to us, and we are allowed to say, “Ok, I’m going to launch my own space program.” Actually, I don’t think we need to go that far to begin to understand space, which begins just on the other side of our gaze. It begins here and goes infinitely to the stars, and all of this field of vision belongs to us. We should allow ourselves to say, “I’m going to explore it.” Today we can actually build those kind of devices, even though it is often expensive to do so.
AS: How do you hope your devices will impact the viewer?
PD: The device becomes a theater of perception. We can talk with strangers about what we see, because at a certain point everyone is something of a metaphysician—children always are, but even in adult life it doesn’t take that much of a push to bring out such questions. Maybe those human activities that we think are so important, like government, are not, and their importance is just a perception…
Sometimes you have people that choose nature over politics, so that nature becomes a refuge from politics. Actually, it is the same; it is not a conflict, but rather a continuum. There are politics in plants, and when we are looking at cities from afar, cities look like crystals. We just grow like parasites and contaminate everything that we are interested in. Contamination is neither bad nor good—it is just something that can create new forms. It can also spoil things.
AS: Is there significance to the form of the devices, the choice of shape and texture, etc.?
PD: These are geometric, mathematical forms made through 3-D modelling and 3-D printing in the early stages. You are looking at something that is looking at you. All of my work is based on that. My work is also influenced by the concept of the Klein bottle, in which inside and outside are linked by a continual surface, a sensual surface. Also, my devices have a very specific function— like the way that flowers are sexual devices, or the way in which apples contain the elements for future propagation—that is almost more complex than a time travelling machine. When I say “sexual”, I mean that organic devices are gates onto something that is a threshold between the tangible and the intangible.
AS: If you are creating a theater of perception, what kind of perception are you cultivating exactly?
PD: I like to work with mainstream video surveillance systems because there is a strange issue today with the question of the quality of the image. Corporations are trying to make us believe that the more hi-definition or 3-D an image is, the closer it is to reality. But if you look at the way we actually use and experience technology, we are mostly encountering low-def images: having a discussion with a friend on Skype, or seeing yourself in a surveillance camera, and so on.
I think now, when we see an image that is low-def, we feel that is closer to the actual world, that it is more sincere, that there is no propaganda, but rather a one to one exchange. Theoretically, hi-def is choosing the inverse approach: it is quitting reality. Because for us reality is not just based on vision, it is based on experience.
I don’t want to make an image that imposes on you, to the extent that you say, “It is perfect!” Power and belief are strange things. When you are in front of something that amazes you too much, it feeds you but it also crushes you. You are fascinated to the point that you are disembodied, you become just eyes. For me it is more about space, the image is just an extra layer.
AS: Would you say that a sculptural orientation is part of your practice then?
PD: I am using video as just another level of sculpture. Reality is about the immanence of ‘visualities,’ and we are bathing among this quantity of potential images and actual images. This is structural, almost material— a horizon of latent images.
With my project Déjà Vu, the viewer can be immersed in a video retroaction of an image inside an image, and also because of the delay of the apparatus, with images of the same things up to two minutes old, you have the ghostly remains of what I like to call “slipped images.” Because there are generations or series of images, you get images that have escaped from the flow, the video flow, and so you have images that are a bit like leaves that fall, or like the skin of a snake— back to the idea that we are always shedding images…
AS: Was Étienne-Jules Marey an influence for you?
PD: Yes. Even though his work was about locomotion, because of the black and white backgrounds he used there was always something ghostly and spectral about his work. In my own work, I have been sometimes interested in the concept of making a portrait of absence, or at least asking what happens when the figure is no longer there.
AS: In your practice, how does the body or figure relate to the space around it?
PD: Usually we say there is a break between making a portrait and making a landscape. I think it is interesting from a geometric perspective to try and find out if these two points can be related by a line that sweeps and glides from one point to another. With my machine, when there is no subject, the camera creates a centrifugal panorama. When there is a subject, they block this possibility and you have only the subject itself…Actually, talking now, I just realized that continuity is really important for me: trying to avoid the break between subject and space. But also the break between art and media art, between sculpture and image-making, 2-D and 3-D, outside/inside.
AS: How do your constructed devices impact your interest in the dialectic between figure and ground, or the axes of horizon and verticality?
PD: If you see the history of image making and moving images, it is partially about people becoming more and more aware of the production apparatus, the crane, the camera, the lens, or a flash to the point of view of the person filming, or a sudden awareness of a film within a film. More and more, the hardware that creates the image is appearing, even though we always knew it was there.
What I find interesting now is video surveillance and also images from NASA. Vision Machine #2 was inspired by the images sent to us by the Mars Rover vehicle. Why is it that in videos from NASA we always see a piece of the robot in the image? I don’t know if it is on purpose or not, but it is almost like that point of reference makes the image more real. This is the same thing with the crosshairs on photographs or video: we know how this image was made.
I think in my work there is always a moment when the machine sees itself for this reason.
- This Mellon-funded interview was assisted by Emma Jonas.
Abigail Susik is an Assistant Professor of Art History at Willamette University. Her research focuses on cultural histories of the European avant-gardes, as well as issues of aesthetics and ethics in contemporary and new media art. She curated the 2016 exhibition, “‘For Myself:’ Nudes by Imogen Cunningham 1906-1939,” at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art in Oregon. Recent and forthcoming publications include Blackwell Companion to Dada and Surrealism, ed. David Hopkins (Wiley-Blackwell, 2016); Leonora Carrington and the International Avant-Garde, eds. Jonathan P. Eburne and Catriona McAra (Manchester University Press, 2016); and entries in The Encyclopaedia of Surrealism, ed. Michael Richardson (Bloomsbury Press, 2017).