Visiting the BigTorrent exhibition, July 4th on the Rhone river, on the occasion of the opening of the 73rd theater Festival of Avignon.
In Europe hardly a summer goes by these days without harrowing images of campsites, vehicles and people being swept away by flash floods. As global heating is causing increasing incidents of extreme weather, artists are increasingly looking to the principles of ‘deep adaptation’ as defined by the scientist and author Jem Bendell to make projects about attitudes to the ‘crue’, the level to which a flood reaches the high mark. This summer ‘Big Torrent’ opened on the Rhone by the famous ‘half-bridge’ of Avignon which attracts many tourists to its protruding position on the river. Rivers like the Rhone are no longer a natural flow but are adapted to human needs. Organisers Bipolar, Gregory Diguet and Mathieu Argaud talk about the way we cohabit with the river and the way in which this is increasingly out of our control: “The river’s ecosystems have become a cultural landscape of its own, with which cohabitation is regularly redefined. Human management can go far, but domestication remains very limited as rivers will always be powerful factors capable of flooding territories.”
An Orbital River Station
Premiering at BigTorrent is a new and complex work, two years in the making and still developing, the ORS (Orbital River Station) by Le Havre-based HeHe. Inspired by the space station design of legendary Slovenian space engineer Hermann Potočnik Noordung in his 1928 book The Problem of Space Travel, the ORS currently takes the form of a slowly orbiting large 5m buoy, tethered to the river and forming a new landmark by the bridge to river users like kayakers (who on the night before the opening interacted with the work so enthusiastically it floated away). The ORS was tested in model form at the fluid dynamics laboratory at the University of Le Havre. Here, the duo HeHe were able to assess that the ORS would actually turn on its axis using the forces of the current.
A floating pollution sensor
As well as a functioning as a scientific experiment, it is also an aesthetic and utopian object. Helen Evans of HeHe: “In its ultimate form, it’s an autonomous structure for living, a self-sufficient system for living on water. It’s a real invention – the design of the pouches actually enables it to turn.” The visual dimension of the ORS as a new landmark in the Rhone also has a practical aspect. Evans: “It’s literally a giant life-ring to remind you of the dangers of flooding. It’s also an unidentified object which you’re not sure of its purpose – it’s outside the normal bounds of reality”. Like many of HeHe’s past projects, it’s like a recognisable everyday object that becomes repurposed in a metaphorical and humorous way. “It’s quite a funny and playful object, you can imagine people wanting to climb on it and jump off it but it also has a serious dimension. It’s being used as a scientific tool to collect data, such as the levels of ibuprofen that pass through our bodies into the river and other forms of contamination in the river. It’s important to mention that the ibuprofen sensor is made by the Nano2Water group at INL in Portugal out of nano-scale materials – the form and shape of which can only capture ibuprofen.” The sensor dimension to the project is actually being developed as part of a STARTS residency at this lab. Helen Evans presented the ORS at a STARTS conference at the Centre Pompidou earlier this year.
Helen Evans (HeHe), O.R.S. (Orbital River Station), STARTS Residencies Days, Centre Pompidou, March 27, 2019:
Where is the ORS heading in the future? “We would like to test it in big rivers like the Seine and the Danube. It will evolve as a laboratory station with other kinds of sensors – we are going to be testing for sulphides and lead for example, and mapping the rivers through water pollution.” Like HeHe’s ‘Centipede’ project, an artist-devised carbon-free train, ORS is a dynamically developing project. HeHe intend to expand the ORS to become a floating laboratory and habitation for the rivers of Europe.
After the flood
The site of BigTorrent by the river Rhone also resembles a scene after a campsite flood, with photographic sculptures by Cyril Hatt in Les Resurgents, which he calls “strange ghosts who have come out of our daily lives” the largest of which is a life-size camper van seemingly semi-destroyed by the rising water and damaged flood danger signs, items of clothing, suitcases and shoes littering the riverside. They are convincing from a distance, but when you approach, they reveal themselves as crumpled 3D photographs.
The flood plain in BigTorrent is not just experienced in real life. There are two quite sophisticated virtual reality experiences. I underwent the ‘techno-shamanist’ immersive performance #Alphaloop by deletere (read our interview), where participants are guided along the riverside by a ‘shaman’, Fred Sechet. Starting in ‘actual reality, participants are given breathing exercises to adapt to the virtual version of the Rhone. But soon participants realise their experience is being subverted by a ‘trickster’ mixing the experience live by creator Adelin Schweitzer. “The shamanic experience is always live, mixed in an ambulatory way. The shaman helps you to adapt yourself, but then the operator (Schweitzer) plays technological tricks on the audience in the mixed reality helmets. The techniques are inspired by a military protocol. Each time you dig into the kinaesthetic experience, the more you find these military techniques.” So for example, one has just adapted to walking along in the virtual world when the world literally turns upside down, or is invaded by static, which can be quite disconcerting.
Another participant told me afterward she had experienced considerable alternate world sickness, a condition also often deliberately simulated by the military in their use of VR battle scenarios. The award-winning L’Ile Des Morts by Benjamin Nuel is showing alongside, which is also alarming in its realism, transporting the viewer to the island of the dead by a scarily close hooded rower.
Benjamin Nuel, L’Ile des morts, trailer:
The two projects intersected at one point when the viewers of this project screamed with fear and the participants of #Alphaloop were convinced this was another shamanistic trick by Schweitzer.
The riverside location also contains various visualisation of future floods, with specially designed maps which colour-code the flood risks and also a site-specific data visualisation sculpture by Vincent Mauger, The Texture of the Swell, which “projects us into a mental landscape where the power of water, always capable of submerging territories, has been paused”.