Mélodie Mousset plays with the body to better understand it, cross it and explore it. She divides up a body wearing a costume and adorned with unlikely props, and displays it in galleries and on walls and floors in the form of gigantic noses and eyes, and huts made of hair. Today, she can visit it and it can visit her thanks to virtual reality. This is a logical continuation for this artist who has previously created caves made of pasta to allow visitors to travel into another reality.
Performance, video, installations, photography, sculpture…how do you define yourself as an artist?
Although I am often cited as a new media artist, I consider myself an explorer of the body. I welcome any medium to push the limites of the physical body: it is not the medium that defines my work, but the questions it raises. My work is similar to the “hero’s journey”, where each stage of creation is an opportunity for a new metamorphosis. For example in 2012 with Impulsive Control, a performance during which I was sitting on a potter’s wheel, I showed the audience my cranial cavity opening like a pot. In 2013, an unlikely encounter with doctors in a virtual reality lab allowed me to push the limits of this exploration a step further: using their digital tools I was able to enter my body to see my own organs. This mapped body gave rise to my first virtual reality experience Organ Island where users visit my heart, brain and liver. I then printed these organs in 3D to wear them as an ex voto offering in the depths of the Mexican forest. This personal quest led to the film Intra Aura. Today, with HanaHana, I invite everyone to leave their mark on a connected virtual world.
What was the tipping point for virtual reality?
Not long ago, I took advantage of the renovation work on a hydroelectric plant to explore its bowels along one of its seven kilometre long pipes, in completely cool and dark conditions. My brain and emotions were constantly struggling: I had lost all sense of space and time and could only rely on the sounds produced by the rhythm of my steps and my breath distorted by the reverberation of the sound. The fear gradually gave way to a meditative state: in short, the tube I was travelling through became a kind of extension of my respiratory system.
This epic in the dark is an example of what I try to invoke through virtual reality. And when I recall this experience, it is as if I never “switched” to virtual reality. I have always played with organic elements, space and sound to make people question their individuality and their relationship with others or the universe. I do use new technologies, but I do not think they are essential for experiencing other realities.
Is the creation of a fictitious virtual world – known as a metaverse – cathartic for you?
My mother suffers from schizophrenia and I have always wondered how she manages this representation of a fragmented, scattered, disembodied body on a day-to-day basis. Taking out my organs, externalising them and being able to look at them somehow allowed me to put myself in her place, and break the biological "curse". I am convinced that we live in multiple realities. The illusion of continuity that makes our individual and human history is not reality, but one of the virtual realities made by our brain. When my mother tells me her incredible stories, I believe her. What’s more, in some civilisations schizophrenics are considered sages or visionaries. Virtual reality offers this possibility of being embodied in something else, of opening up to other worlds, to other possibilities.
In 2019, you won the Visions Prize at the VR Arles Festival for HanaHana. How was this work received by audiences in the different countries where it was presented?
In this multiplayer and collaborative experience, hands spring up according to players’ choices: in the desert they form improbable sculptures that in turn create electrical networks across the landscape. A kind of open-air network. Each player, in the form of a will-o’-the-wisp, can therefore use this energy to trigger lightning. The world of HanaHana – in a state of continuous renewal – thus resembles a contemporary mythology.
Since the first prototype was produced in 2017, HanaHana has been exhibited on all five continents. The public's reactions have always been unanimous: visitors live this multi-sensory experience intensely, and are destabilised and upset. HanaHana leaves no one indifferent! It’s a unique piece in the virtual reality landscape: to date, few works offer as much freedom to the user with such a level of technological complexity, whether audio or visual. My mum loved it.
To what extent is the creative process involved in a virtual reality digital work specific or different from the creative process for your previous works?
The creation of HanaHana was very long, laborious and difficult. A real journey in itself! In VR ideas are not enough: an immersive work requires as much creativity as technological expertise. Exchanges must therefore be very fluid within the team. And for its production, we quickly find ourselves working within the constraints of technical developments. As an artist, I knew nothing about code or management: I became a kind of IT entrepreneur by necessity. Another concern: funds. Like what Orson Welles said about cinema – “2% creation and 98% prostitution”, I feel like I spend most of my time looking for financial support to pay my team!
You live in Switzerland. Is this fertile ground for digital creation?
Switzerland is fertile ground for video games, visual arts and technological innovation. My work is halfway between these two worlds of art and industry, which is not always obvious when seeking funding. Institutions still have a long way to go to embrace these new cultural forms. However, I think that the current pandemic will, out of necessity, leave more room for innovative hybrid projects and open up new paradigms: in this context some people have started to compose music using digital technology. The divide between art, video games and technology no longer makes sense.
HanaHana by Mélodie Mousset is listed in the VR Immersive Experiences catalogue, which references a selection of original works at the intersection of virtual reality, live performance and visual arts. The aim of this catalogue is to introduce these new forms of shows and exhibitions and to facilitate their use by cultural and entertainment venues around the world, thus contributing to the development of a market for this emerging sector.
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