February 25, 2011

Les Sphères Polaires, Bernard Duguay, Pierre Gagnon, Lucion Média by Zeke


There are 24 (or maybe 25 I haven't been able to get a straight answer from anyone) round objects, hanging out near rue Jeanne Mance until the 27th of February. They're collectively called "Les Sphères Polaires." And I think they are horrible. But just to say they are horrible and dismiss them with a one word review actually makes me look like the jerk and the asshole. So bear with me as I attempt to explain why I think that "Les Sphères Polaires" should be condemned to someplace slightly more "Polaires" like the Gulag Archipelago, and forever be banished from Montreal.

Oooh! A big white ball!

First off: Unless there is a festival of some sort, the area where "Les Sphères Polaires" are located is a business district where the large majority of the people who are near it are near it in between the hours of 9AM and 5PM. During the hours of 9AM and 5PM the sun is out and as a consequence "Les Sphères Polaires" are a bunch of white spheres that do absolutely nothing except take up space. During the daytime they don't do anything, which is a pity. Because the technology exists to do some pretty spectacular light shows during the day, but whomever is the power behind "Les Sphères Polaires" decided that they were only going to "do stuff" at night.

Man, that is some amazing public art!!

At night, by my best guess, during the winter there are perhaps four people who walk from rue Sainte Catherine and rue Jeanne Mance to avenue du President Kennedy and rue Jeanne Mance. All night. Yes, there are the folks who are eating at Brasserie T! who are forced to watch "Les Sphères Polaires" (and thankfully Brasserie T! seems to attract crowds) otherwise the only people who would see "Les Sphères Polaires" would be those four intrepid people who choose to walk from rue Sainte Catherine and rue Jeanne Mance to avenue du President Kennedy and rue Jeanne Mance each night. 'Cause if I can remind you slightly, it is cold in Montreal in the winter, and as a consequence most people stay indoors, drive or take the metro and do not venture outside unless absolutely necessary. Last week it was -30 degrees. Even fewer people ventured outside at night.

Be still my beating heart...

So we have a case of something being touted as quote: art unquote, which should therefore entice people to come see it, but unfortunately being in the position (and place and time) where pretty much nobody goes to see it. Now this would all be fine and dandy if some person had decided that they wanted to show off their mad skills at doing stuff with white spheres on their own dime and time. You know something like Lightning Field, or James Turrell's Roden Crater, or something like that. But the fine folk behind "Les Sphères Polaires" somehow convinced a jury of their peers to let the Quebec and Montreal governments to fund the whole project.

Gotta love that color scheme, someone spent a lot of time figuring that one out.

Now I don't know about you, but if my tax dollars are going to fund art (and I really and truly like the idea that my tax dollars DO go and fund art, after all we are living in Quebec here) I want them to go to art which will be seen by people and is not horrible.

I was discussing "Les Sphères Polaires" with a friend, and she said I shouldn't be so mean, after all they were pretty. I asked her if she thought they were anything more than pretty, and while she initially said yes, when push came to shove, she couldn't come up with another adjective. Now I'm not against pretty things per se, I have no problems with roses, baby seals, sunsets or anything else that can be generically called quote: pretty unquote. But where I do have a problem is if someone tries to convince me that roses, baby seals and sunsets are high art. Quote: pretty unquote, and other adjectives like quote: cute unquote while might be sufficient for other people as far as defining what they like in art, but it doesn't do it for me. Quote: pretty unquote, if you hadn't noticed is a very one-dimensional description, and while we're at it is also fairly personal. Your pretty is not my pretty, and if you're going to push me any further, there ain't no accounting for taste, either, and yours sucks.

Isn't it wonderful how they can get them all the same color at the same time? Technology is so wonderful these days.

But beyond taste and relative ideas of prettiness. The whole project doesn't make sense to anyone! On first glance (which is only what most people give it anyhow) at night the 24 (or 25) spheres appear to change and switch color, occasionally something appears inside that vaguely looks like shadow puppets, all the while there's a vaguely Cirque du Soleil ultra world beat type of music that is playing in the background. What you don't know is that there's a red thing (kind of octagon-shaped, looking like a squished bass drum) with some holes on its side that actually controls everything. How do I know this? Because one night I was one of those four people walking from Sainte Catherine to avenue du President Kennedy and there was this guy who popped up from out of nowhere moving his hands like he was playing some sort of steampunk theremin who spent more than five minutes trying to not only explain to me how "Les Sphères Polaires" worked, but then another five minutes trying to convince me to control them.

That just jumps up at me and screams "wave your hands over me!"

Now, if the fine folk behind "Les Sphères Polaires" realized that they needed someone to explain the nuts and bolts to the four people who go from rue Sainte Catherine to avenue du President Kennedy each night it was only because they must have realized that for the most part people had no idea what the heck was happening, how the heck it was happening or why. And on top of that, they had probably used the word quote: interactivity unquote, multiple times in their grant applications (although, now in going over things, it occurs to me that this might have just been chosen by the folk at Spectra - there are no government logos anywhere). And then suddenly realized that when they went to take pictures for their final report that there were no people in the pictures to demonstrate quote: interactivity unquote.

Shadow Puppets! Wow!

Uh-Oh! That's not good. If you write the word quote: interactivity unquote, in your grant application it is a foregone conclusion that you need to have pictures of people using you art in your final report. If you don't, you're never getting another grant again. From anyone. Ever. So what do you do if what you wanted to happen isn't happening? You hire what here in Quebec is called a quote: animator unquote, or in the rest of the world is called a master-of-ceremonies. It probably would have been better on the grant application, if instead of needing what here in Quebec is called an quote: animator unquote, or in the rest of the world is called a master-of-ceremonies they had just written the words Twitter, Facebook, and Flickr. But they didn't, so we're stuck with what here in Quebec is called an quote: animator unquote, or in the rest of the world is called a master-of-ceremonies. Pity. Although on the plus side I've heard rumors to the effect that they hired either homeless people or folk on welfare, so if you can get over the fact that these quote: animator unquote, (after all we are in Quebec) have to work in minus 30 degree weather, it probably can be considered a positive.

A close up of a hole.

But, don't get me wrong, shadow puppets are cool. In fact I've heard it from a very reliable source that shadow puppets are the next black. But one thing I like when watching shadow puppets - actually like is not the right word - the one thing I demand when watching shadow puppets is a plot, a storyline, or in simpler terms something that has a beginning, middle and an end. If you hadn't noticed "Les Speheres Polaires" are spheres - they don't have a beginning or an end - they do have a middle, but that's about all they have. And only having a middle is fine and dandy until you try to impose some sort of linear structure to your art by projecting shadow puppets. No way, no how, ain't gonna work. Or in even plainer terms don't even think about it.

And for those of you who think that I don't know diddly about shadow puppets, allow me to show you what I think are good (if not great to awesome) shadow puppets. William Kentridge just rocks my world and rocks it hard.

Before I forget, another absolutely horrible thing about "Les Sphères Polaires" is the music. Imagine if you will some type of music slapped with the label world beat. Then dumb it down to world beat music for infants. And then dumb it down further by imagining world beat music being played by infants. No way, no how, world beat music played by infants is going to be anything more than a LOL Cats for the second decade of the 21st century. But because everyone who sees "Les Sphères Polaires" only sees it for an extremely brief time the music played alongside only needs to be like the music played in your favorite mall, banal and dumb. Not quite completely in the background so that you don't consciously hear it, but at the same time definitely not a Lady Gaga song.

I dunno if you've ever seen the Teletubbies, but I have. Not that we have to get into a long discussion about why, suffice it to say, I was doing it with someone else's child. But after much pondering, it occurred to me, that "Les Sphere's Polaires" are exactly like the Teletubbies. Simplistic, designed to keep infants quiet, docile and content. And besides you know that it isn't good for an infant to be watching TV.

Getting fancy in this one, shadows and blue. OMIGOD!!

How exactly are "Les Sphères Polaires" simplistic? Well, if you notice most art uses a bunch of different colors. "Les Sphères Polaires" tends to be only one color at a time, as if having a varied palate would kill them.

How exactly are "Les Sphères Polaires" designed to keep you quiet? well, if you notice they make a lot of noise on their own, and it's cold out. I don't know about you but when it's cold, I don't like shouting (actually I don't like shouting at any temperature). And if someone is going to insist on playing loud noise, I'm not going to feel obliged to be heard over their din. Which means I'm going to be quiet - you on the other hand might react differently.

How exactly do "Les Sphères Polaires" keep you docile? Well if you drink the Kool-Aid and believe the hype that "Les Sphères Polaires" are cutting edge art then obviously you're not going to agitate for other cutting edge art. (yes, I recognize that's a tautology, but bear with me for a moment, ok?) But even if you don't think that "Les Sphères Polaires" are cutting edge art, as soon as you accept that they are art, then you stop asking questions. And to me that's the key point, art should always engage you in ways that make you think. After the initial "Oh cool!" squeal there is nothing substantial, no meat, all fluff, empty calories - I can continue listing the metaphors for as long as you like – but how about I save us both the trouble and stop here?

In case you didn't get the point, I'm repeating it. Technology is so wonderful these days.

Continuing along the line of how banal they are; if you happen to be able to stand watching and having to listen to them for any extended amount of time, you will quickly realize that for the most part the colored lights of "Les Sphères Polaires" are synchronized with the lights that are being used to quote: enhance, unquote the brutal and facade of the Musée d'art contemporain. So somehow, someone, somewhere, decided that the pretty lights within the balls were art, and somehow, someone, somewhere else, decided that the pretty lights on the side of the building were not. I just don't get it. And while I'm at it, who in the heck decided to quote: enhance, unquote the Musée d'art contemporain? The building is just plain ugly. To quote the seminal 1980s band Fishbone, "U-G-L-Y, you ain't got no alibi, you're just ugly." There is no amount of quote: enhancing, unquote, that could turn that sow's ear into a purse. But whomever decided that a ginormous blank wall along rue Jeanne Mance (fer chrisakes' she was one of the founders of Montreal!) was a good idea, should be politely asked to try hanging out there while teaching people about the interactive aspect of "Les Speheres Polaires."

Doesn't that scene just make you want to dive right in?

Because of this massive blank wall that stretches from rue Sainte-Catherine to avenue du President Kennedy and the design of the Place des Festivals there is no integration of "Les Sphères Polaires" with the neighborhood whatsoever (ok, maybe a little, there are five of the balls that hang out in front of the Musée d'art contemporain, but they are so separated from the 19 or 20 others that they might as well be two separate installations. And those five that hang out in front of the Musée d'art contemporain ain't interactive, either). If you're going to be placing art in a neighborhood, one of the prime directives is to make it work with its surroundings. If your art is constantly fighting with its surroundings, the art is not going to win. As far as I can tell the only kind of art that is going to work in that neighborhood is the kind that is high up above ground level. If someone were to place some kinda big (not ginormous, nor humongous, but big) statues on top of the Musée d'art contemporain that then glowered down at the people who ventured to set foot on rue Jeanne Mance. Now that would be kind of cool. Big statues of snowmen. And then if you wanted to make them quote: interactive, unquote. You could set up some type of automatic snowball making machine and then make each one have an arm that was like a catapult. That way pedestrians would have to dodge the snowballs as they crossed Place des Festivals – and on top of that it would also make for some pretty entertaining scenes for the diners at Brasserie T! Plus, it would be easy to do during the day, when most people are in Place des Festivals during the winter. Win, win, win all around, except for those poor tourists who (inadvertently) got hit by a snowball.

But before I get too far ahead of myself and completely set up next year's show. I should get back to "Les Sphères Polaires." And ultimately it is a bad use of technology. Technology should help people do things that they previously couldn't. When used as art, it should make people think. "Les Sphères Polaires" does neither.

Last month I was watering the plants at a friend's house that was in the neighborhood of the Place des Festivals and as a consequence was able to see the balls form a variety of perspectives (her condo is on the 17th floor, so I was able to see them from up high, and as my schedule wasn't that rigorous, sometimes I would water the plants in the morning, sometimes at night, and in order to get to and from her place I would have to literally trip over them, so I got to see them up close as well) and there wasn't a single perspective where they made me think or enabled me to do something that I previously couldn't, except perhaps walk in a straight line from Brasserie T! to the metro, but that wasn't related to any technological advancement what so ever.

To my mind public art, even ephemeral public art needs to have a purpose and/or a reason. And beyond enabling Bernard Duguay and Pierre Gagnon of Lucion Média to make some money I can't think of a single purpose and/or a reason for "Les Sphères Polaires."

By this point we're almost at 2,700 words, either you've gotten my point, or you stopped reading a long time ago. So there really isn't any point me bringing up the wasteful use of energy in order to keep things inflated and making noise, nor is there any point in me talking about how they are supposed to represent immense snow globes but fail miserably nor is there any point in me flogging this horse much longer, I presume you get the idea. But if you want to continue the experience you can listen to what I said about "Les Sphères Polaires" right here.

Play Here

Download: MP3 12MB / FLAC 40MB / Ogg Vorbis 6MB or Stream
Originally broadcast on the Monday Morning After on CKUT 90.3 FM, Montreal.

Believe it or not, Nancy Reagan was right – Just say "no" to "Les Sphères Polaires."