Ælab: l'Espace du milieu

Darling Foundry, Montreal / Artpapers, Atlanta: 2011

Since 1996 the artistic duo Ælab (Gisèle Trudel and Stéphane Claude) have been producing installations, environments and multi-media events preoccupied with the life-cradling 'middle zone' between earth and sky. An ongoing major work, light, sweet, cold, dark, crude uses live performance of light, image, off-site feeds and immersive sound to explore ecological issues in an explicit way, focusing particularly on a natural wastewater management ecology pioneered by Dr. John Todd. This latest exhibition, L'espace du milieu has two parts: a 100' x 9' back-projection (cgi generated images of particles of indiscernible scale forming constantly fluctuating patterns) to be viewed while passing on the street or nearby highway, and a gallery installation which creates a heightened experiential space drawing visitors into an environment where their own sensory threshold must adjust in order to begin picking up the subtle aural, visual and visceral effects which are orchestrated in the space. While the exterior projection engages a cursory over-scaled visual experience which is the norm for information-based culture, the threshold sensory environment inside draws us into a zone where we begin to experience ourselves experiencing at the most subtle level. With this shift from earlier information-based work Ælab faces an important question which contemporary art encounters when touching on ecology and technology, namely, how does art hold its politics and how does art cope with an overt intensity of information (language, data or representation) that can easily dominate work and turn it into reportage.

This installation allows the viewer to engage a space which is rich by virtue of a reduction of visual experience to a threshold where the eye, the ear and the rest of the senses are not reading pre-discerned data but rather are feeling out a space in the raw. In doing so the space as we feel it begins to signal a universe of the indiscernible just out of reach of our senses. One arrives in a darkened room. Scaffolding divides the space into three areas which, as they each situate the body, I took as stations. Technology is discretely hidden. The first station is a sound dampened enclosure with a bench on which one can lie in the darkness. Detecting one's weight the bench vibrates or resonates into the body above in what seems like a composed pattern. Our forward-facing senses are re-tuned to the back. This directional reset seems significant. The second station is simply a chair in an area bathed in light and sound. We are facing nothing, however our sitting locates us in the centre of this fluctuating light and sound field which is like a pulse or rhythm which lulls any specific readings in favour of an immersive attentiveness to the surround. The last station is experienced standing or moving, a black screen or scrim, which can be seen from either side, with a kind of simple light projection/reflection which seems akin to theatrical devices for giving the illusion of smoke or water -- a decidedly three-dimensional illusion or tangible-intangible thing, once again situating the viewer on the threshold between the indiscernible and the discernable. Here our visual sense, so apt to decode and build sense, meaning and thing is caught tantalizingly close to its goal and forced to recoil in puzzlement, returning to the other stations and other senses for hints of what lies beneath the floor of sensory experience.

In my description this very tangible spatial-sensorial experience cannot but flatten out. In reality, L'espace du milieu takes us to a space which artists using citations of science or technological experiment can only report on. In slipping the desire to articulate a position or an activism on the macro level of language and information, Ælab actually engages on a level it would otherwise only have pointed to, and in doing so gets closer to the ethical core of their own radical ecology, ( possibly a journey best left to art than to science).