To make art look and feel different, to make it live as a totally unique experience: that’s one of the leitmotifs of Michael Couzigou, director of Paris’ Atelier des Lumières. After two years of renovations, the former smelting plant was bought by Culturespaces to house a digital art center. “After the success of Carrières des Lumières [a the center managed by Culturespaces since 2010 in Baux-de-Provence], we wanted to continue to develop this new kind of digital artistic expression,” Michael Couzigou explains. The Atelier des Lumières opened its doors in April, with a retrospective exhibition of the works of Gustav Klimt (1862-1918).

The name Gustav Klimnt might evoke a series of golden, intimate paintings, but that’s not why his work was shown at the Atelier des Lumières. “We do show a lot of art, but this isn’t a museum,” Michael Couzigou makes sure to emphasize. Because here, thanks to digital technology, the visitor becomes a spectator, plunged into a complete immersion. After entering the hall, she suddenly finds herself in 19thcentury Austria, listening to a waltz by Johann Strauss. As she’s beginning to imagine the Empress Sisi stepping across the immense room, another of her senses awakens: sight.

From the floor to the walls, the great room begins to animate, illuminated by projections superimposed one after another, dancing to the rhythm of the waltz. The images twirl and then freeze just long enough for one to admire its detail. Then they carry on their choreography, ceding to the next image, now following the rhythms of a Gustav Mahler symphony. Sometimes, videos and words mix with the images.

Credits: Floriane Valdayron

Tech in the service of art

Photography, video, painting, music, writing. “The idea is to combine them,” Michael Couzigou says. Behind the meeting of different media, we find in digital art the mechanisms of science and technology. “Generally, it’s always been thanks to technology that visual arts have evolved,” says Eric Viennot, creative director of the French innovation hub thecamp. “For example, with the invention of paint tubes, the Impressionists were finally able to leave their workshops, which had been impossible before because they had to create their color pigments on site.”

In much the same way, art evolved during the 1960s when the American Ivan Sutherland created Sketchpad, a computer program for designing. “Twenty years later, with the first computers Amiga and Atari, digital was still considered a game,” Eric Viennot says. “But pioneering artists realized that they could use them to create images, interactive devices that could tell stories. They seized upon digital to take art into a new evolution.”

Viennot himself discovered microcomputers and computer graphics in the 1980s, while he was studying visual arts. “That made me want to explore a new territory: video games,” says the creator of Uncle Albert’s Adventures. “Digital art is driven by graphic animation, which you find on video games,” Michael Couzigou says, noting the importance of mastering technologies like video projectors, lasers and LED. In this light, the devices used in the Atelier des Lumières are impressive: the hall features 50 speakers and 140 video projectors that cover a 3,300 m2area. All of that is controlled by 40-some severs that store and play more than 3,000 images.

Artists are particularly interested in the wide-ranging possibilities this kind of technology allows. “We like to think that technology is at the heart of our work, but in truth, that’s not its most important role. It’s a tool for creating art, which allows artistic expression to freely change form,” says teamLab artist Takashi Kudo, who describes himself as an “ultra-technologist.”

Created in 2001, the Japanese collective originally had five members, including Takashi Kudo. Today, they have 500: artists, programmers, engineers, graphic animators, mathematicians, architects, graphic designers. Together, they work with software, 3D modeling and technological sensors. “By themselves, these technologies are neither rare nor particularly difficult to use. It’s when we combine them with art and our perspective that makes the work innovative and unique,” Takashi Kudo says. Integral to their work is the role of the spectator.

Spect-actors

“In ‘traditional’ art, you can say that the presence of other people in the room interferes with the person viewing the art, which is a problem for the exhibit,” Takashi Kudo says. It’d be hard to claim that the crush of bodies squeezing in front of the Mona Lisa every day at the Louvre improves the experience of witnessing it. “In our expositions, though, you can say that the presence of others is perceived as a positive thing,” the teamLab member says, citing the exposition Flowers and People, Cannot be Controlled but Live Together. In its video presentation, one sees a young woman contemplating the flight of butterflies; the scene only gets more magical from there.

But teamLab imagines more than just an aesthetic aspect. It envisions using art “to explore a new relationship between humans and the world.” One of the collective’s fundamentals is to use interactive technology to blur the line between spectator and work, until they become part of each other. “That way, the way people perceive each other can evolve: the behavior of the person next to or in front of you becomes an important element in digesting the art,” Takashi Kudo says. “Art now has the power to influence human relationships.”

Digital art can enlarge ideas of space and perception, but it can also encourage active participation, as Eric Viennot proves in l’Arbre des Inspirations(Tree of Inspirations), an “urban experience” in augmented reality for thecamp. “Viewers can interact with little creatures called Imagos to leave a positive trace as they pass by,” the creative director says of the multi-color, phantasmagorical universe.

Crédits : Floriane Valdayron

Whether it’s interactive or simply contemplated, digital art isn’t consumed the same way traditional arts are, even in a retrospective exhibit on a traditional painter, as the Atelier des Lumières goes to show. In the hall, there’s no restriction whatsoever on where to stand: children dance to the rhythm of the music, arms waving, covered in the light of images from Klimt’s works. “To create an immersive experience, we played around a lot with the emotional aspect of the exposition in developing the link between music and image,” Michael Couzigou says.

Viewers are totally free to move around. Some, not knowing where to focus, wander aimlessly about the room. Others seat themselves on the ground or remain fixed, standing. There’s no traditional orientation, as in traditional museums, no audio guides–just a few explanatory labels upstairs of the exposition room and a leaflet handed out at the entrance. The lack of pedagogy at the Klimt exposition has been criticized from its opening.

“We’re looking for the sensorial, not the pedagogical. The idea is to get away from museum labels,” Michael Couzigou explains, reminding that the Atelier des Lumières is not a museum. “We want to offer visitors a journey through art, through perception in an artistic current.” The concept might seem unclear, given that digital art isn’t even accepted wholesale yet, as Eric Viennot regrets.

Digital art taking over

“There’s a kind of snobism on the part of contemporary art,” thecamp’s creative director notes. From its opening, the Atelier des Lumières has been at once lauded and derided. Télérama called it “impressive.” Le Figaro called it “gimmicky” and, more harshly, a “massacre.” La Croix regretted mournfully the “pillaging of painters past.”

And yet, for Michael Couzigou, nobody is asking the right question. The art presented at the Atelier des Lumières is not derivative; it is art in its own right, “inspired by paintings from the history of art, but with an artistic and digital framework.” Despite the critics and the general attachment to traditional art media, digital art has its hold on the public. The Atelier des Lumières is making waves. Its director was counting on 1,000 visitors a day, but that’s been multiplied five times during the week, six or seven times on the weekends.

“Art production has always centered on visual arts. Digital can express something else,” Michael Couzigou says. “People are curious. They want to discover new artistic projects, because they have access to this immersive aspect they can’t find in museums, and they want to participate in this kind of artistic experience.”

The goal is to appeal to all kinds of audiences: families, youths, elderly. “Digital art is more accessible. It’s easier to discover artistic trends,” Michael Couzigou says, alluding to parts of the public that don’t frequent museums. Digital also makes it possible to showcase more work than would be possible with physical paintings. “Here we’ve brought together 200 digital works, even while in reality they’re scattered around the world,” the director of the Atelier des Lumières says.

Whether he succeeds in democratizing the culture or not, Eric Viennot is optimistic about the future. He believes digital art will find an increasingly important place in society. “As far as I can tell, young artists are going to naturally appropriate the technologies they were born with,” he says. “I think we’re going to start seeing incredible things in a few years, things we can’t even imagine today, especially with artificial intelligence and big data. This relationship between the real and virtual worlds is fascinating, and it’s going to keep developing thanks to digital art.” Michael Couzigou goes much further: “I think we’re at a turning point in the history of art, equal to the Renaissance in how mathematics influenced painting.”

Will the famous works of Dali, Klimt, Picasso and Van Gogh someday be put aside to make way for digital art? “There will always be painters, sculptors, visual artists,” the director of the Atelier des Lumières says, for which digital technology offers a “complement.” “We’ve seen this time and time again in art. One medium never erases another,” Eric Viennot says. “When photography arrived, the painters were terrified, but that’s when the Impressionists stood out by pursuing new artistic forms.”

So the existence of traditional art is safe. Even still, the influence of digital art is growing. Take Pixel, for example, a choreography by Mourad Merzouki. Hip-hop dancers perform on a stage, surrounded by thousands of pixels, which move in real time according to the dancers’ movements. The technological feat is thanks to sound sensors. “Dance, street arts, theater and even the circus are evolving thanks to digital. For Pixel, digital artists worked directly with dancers,” Eric Viennot says. “The potential for digital in the arts is becoming more and more significant.”