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Manuel Chantre (Montreal)
January 17 – February 21, 2014.

Memorsion is a feature exhibition of the first annual Saskatchewan Prairie Light Photography Festival.

“Buildings are received in a twofold manner: by use and by perception.”1

When Marshall McLuhan wrote his famous aphorism, “the medium is the message,” he could have been predicting a show like Manuel Chantré’s Memorsion, which PAVED exhibited between 17 January and 21 February 2014.  A feature exhibit of the first annual Saskatchewan Prairie Light Photography Festival, Memorsion creates an immersive, interactive media environment through a highly technical coordination of image and sound projection. It invites visitors into a fractured and fragmentary space. When you enter, you’re enveloped inside a labyrinth of translucent screens, surrounded by flickering, semi-random images, caught in the light of the projector.  Memorsion washes over you, but your experience isn’t passive: through movement, you inscribe yourself on the environment, both by triggering a PS3-eye motion sensitive camera that tells the master computer to reassemble the visual loop, and by writing your shadow, however fleetingly, upon the polyester screens.

The screens are portals into the world of Memorsion.  At PAVED, Chantré suspended eighteen panels in a T-configuration of two columns.  Four projectors – one on each point of the T and one in the middle of the room facing the terminus – cast images through the screens, creating a three-dimensional visual environment.  There’s no predetermined way to navigate the space, but the effects of optical depth encourage you move – or imagine moving – through the openings and corridors of Memorsion’s architecture.  The panels are inviting and preemptive, points of access and barriers to motion.  Just as they filter particles of light while allowing some light to pass, so they frustrate the illusion that you can enter the image-scape projected through them.  You will have to contend, ultimately, with the materiality of the screens.  Through physical contact, you’re given to recognize that your sense of immersion is a technological effect, an impression orchestrated by the media apparatus.

The content of the visual loop conspires with the structure of the installationIt promises, then reneges on its promise, to guide the visitor across the threshold of the screen.  The images invite and prevent the identification of the viewer by registering as familiar and unfamiliar simultaneously.  Chantré’s footage, comprised of shots of human bodies and splintered architectural elements – concrete expanses, graffiti-covered walls, crumbling, abandoned buildings, and bridges – denote “what is normal for us,” what we take for granted “in our day-to-day lives.”2 The fractured, non-linear quality of the loop estranges us from the images, prompting us to reconsider the built environment outside the lens of our regular experience.  At PAVED, Chantré described choosing images that evoke a sense of timelessness: shots of a woman eating, brushing her hair, and washing her face depict common, culturally and historically indeterminate behaviours that he intends to resemble those of the viewer.3 Shots of urban architectures, although specific to Montreal, conceal their actual locations in ways that make them translatable as part of what Chantré called the “nowhere place” of cultural imagination.4 When you move through Memorsion, you project yourself into the visual world just as surely as you’re projected onto the screens.  Your projection can never be complete, however.  The images disrupt any effort that you might make to follow them along a through line or narrative trajectory.

In his artist’s talk at PAVED, Chantré said that although he shot all of his footage with a video camera, he thinks of the images that make up the loop in photographic terms.  Instead of presenting a complete rendering of the world, his images embrace the fragmentariness of photography—its necessarily partial apprehension of slivers of time and space.  Memorsion activates what Walter Benjamin describes as the “optical unconscious” of photography, the new arrangements of matter that the technology of the camera literally brings to light. Superior to human eyes, cameras record elements of reality that exceed the “normal spectrum of sensory impressions.”5 In “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Benjamin writes:

“We have some idea of what is involved in the act of walking (if only in general terms), [but] we have no idea at all what happens during the split second when a person takes a step.  We are familiar with the movement of picking up a cigarette lighter or spoon, but we know almost nothing of what really goes on between hand and metal…This is where the camera comes into play.”6

Memorsion updates a Benjaminian theory of photography for a new media world.  It disrupts habitual ways of looking, making possible other kinds of connections between self and other, subject and object.  For Benjamin, “the optical reception of architecture […] spontaneously takes the form of casual noticing, rather than attentive observation.”7 Chantré makes inattention impossible.  His installation overwhelms the visitor with the stuff of reality that tends to evade conscious experience.

The images, projected onto and through polyester screens, don’t resemble photographs so much as they resemble photographic negatives.  Relics of an analogue world, negatives are as obsolete as the buildings that Chantré captures with his digital camera.  Given that the screens are legible on both sides, they have a structural affinity with negatives, which harbour inverted images in translucent space until they emerge, developed, out of chemical vats.  Prior to their development, negatives exist in a kind of archival limbo: they are indexical traces that haven’t yet become icons.  As well as being visual echoes of one another, the screens share with negatives a common semiotics.  In the same way that negative images occupy a moment prior to their incorporation into the larger visual environment, the shots that project through the screens of Memorsion resist integration into any explanatory context.  In an allegorical sense, Chantré’s images are undeveloped.  They refer not to experiences but traces of experience, flash-moments that can’t be assimilated into a coherent and continuous pattern.

Memorsion adopts elements of photography to ask epistemological questions about images, memory, and subjectivity.  The installation makes clear that the camera doesn’t fracture our perceptions of reality or ourselves.  Instead, and as Ulrich Baer argues, it “[discloses] the world – the setting for human experience – as nothing but atoms moving in a void.”8 Photographs are aides-mémoire, but they also present history as unstable, a web of ruptures and bursts that undermines the notion of time as an uninterrupted, sequential, homogeneous flow.  As the medium that bestows light waves and moving particles with an appearance of solid objects and events, photography embodies the psychic tensions at play when we stitch the flashes of images that comprise our memory into stories about our environments and ourselves.  Memorsion frames reality as a jumble of isolated shards, which address the optical unconscious not only by drawing attention to what we might be inclined to ignore, but by doubling the psychological processes at work when we develop some experiences into memories and sublimate others in the basements of our minds.

Architectural ruins and abandoned buildings function within Chantré’s media ecology as metaphors of personal and collective history. Evacuated of human inhabitants, they register as excess: part of and exterior to the lived experiences of urban dwellers.  Instead of being blights on an otherwise pristine landscape, ruins become sites of projection, walls and girders that bear traces of contact, and upon which people write versions of themselves.  Graffiti tags are material remnants of more ephemeral inscriptions—the psychic and psychological imprints left behind by human traffic.  Because the buildings are abandoned, they make themselves available to modes of sensation and perception that exceed questions of use-value.  As detritus, ruins disrupt the flow of bodies that cities aim to facilitate.  They frustrate linear mobility.  As allegories of experience and subjectivity, ruins describe what doesn’t fit, what can’t be contained within the perceptual apparatus, but which flash up every so often, demanding that we attend to them.9

~Text written by Justin Pfefferle

1. Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Walter Benjamin Selected Writings, Vol. 3 1935-1938. Ed. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003.120.
2. Alex MacPherson, “Shadow on the Wall.” Verb Magazine, Issue S277, 14-20 February 2014. 15.
3. Manuel Chantré, Artist’s Talk at PAVED Gallery, Saskatoon, 18 January 2014.
4. Chantré, Artist’s Talk.
5. Benjamin, 118.
6.Benjamin, 118.
7. Benjamin, 120.
8. Ulrich Baer, Spectral Evidence: The Photography of Trauma. Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 2002. 5.
9.More needs to be said about the aural dimensions of Memorsion.