Ugo Arsac, 2023 resident at the Villa Albertine

I try to show things without necessarily imposing my point of view on a subject, but by placing myself so that the public can form their own opinion.

With his interactive installation Energēia, currently exhibited at Chroniques - The Biennale of Digital Imagination, the artist Ugo Arsac shows us electrical power stations in an entirely new light.

From April, he will be in residence at the Villa Albertine, in New York, to develop a new creation.

Updated on 10/03/2023

5 min

Portrait Ugo Arsac
©Félix Colardelle

Could you tell us about your background?

I studied at the Beaux-Arts and Art Décoratifs de Paris, then at Le Fresnoy. At the beginning of my career as an artist, I experimented with a range of different media before specialising in documentary film making. Later, during my second year at Le Fresnoy, I discovered new digital formats that allowed me to transpose my documentary approach. Through my creations, I try to show things without necessarily imposing my point of view on a subject, but by situating myself in such a way that the public can form its own opinion. I recently had the chance to work with the Chroniques Création production platform to create Energēia, which is currently being exhibited at The Biennale of Digital Imagination in Marseille.


Your work combines urbanism, mythology and anthropology. You focus particularly on the subterranean world. How did you come to work on this theme?

Part of my work is indeed focused on this theme. After living in Paris for ten years, I met a person who used to abseil down all sorts of holes and cavities. He told me at the time that he needed to find a space 'just for him'. This somewhat impalpable, metaphysical subject seemed to me a good starting point for a documentary. So I followed him for a year and a half and he introduced me to the underground world. In the end, it became a film about our relationship, like a sort of "Dante and Virgil". These stays in the underworld had such an impact on me that I wanted to continue and meet the different communities that frequent these spaces for very diverse reasons: the party people, the graffiti artists, the hackers, the cataphiles (although this last term is false since they are mostly quarries). While remaining outside these communities, they gradually opened up many places to me. During this period, I was able to assemble an architectural survey of many underground spaces in Paris: high voltage electricity, ventilation and telecommunications tunnels, sewers, Métro, etc. 

When I embark on a project, I don't just think about the final result, I also try to put myself in conditions that removed from everyday life, to undergo an experience.

In your work you insist on the parallel between the entrails of the earth and those of the human body. What interests you in this metaphor?

Victor Hugo spoke of the sewers of Paris as the Intestine of Leviathan. It's a metaphor that I developed during workshops for children, in drawings or silkscreens where I set out the parallels between the human body and the urban body. When I embark on a project, I don't just think about the final result, I also try to put myself in conditions that removed from everyday life, to undergo an experience. During my long periods underground, I had the feeling that I was gradually being digested by my environment. Some viewers of my work also talk to me about a womb-like journey. If you think of the sewers, for example, that's where all the city's waste is, especially the waste produced by the inhabitants' own bodies. So of course I have likened this network to the digestive system, while the high-voltage lines are like synaptic connections, and the Métro tunnels, offering round trips between the centre and the peripheries, remind me of the bloodstream.


In a few months' time, you will be in residence at the Villa Albertine in New York. You are hoping to meet various surveyors of the city's underground cavities and infrastructure. Can you tell us more about this project?

The project is to go and meet the Mole People (or Tunnel People) who live under the city, in its underground passages. These people have managed to build small precarious dwellings for themselves, sometimes very deep underground. For this project, I am very much inspired by Marc Singer's documentary Dark Days (2000), where he meets a community living in a tunnel under New York. My residency will be spread over two separate periods, so I can establish contact with people on site more easily.


How do you work in this environment? What are the constraints, apart from shooting?

I use Lidar scanning technology, which allows me to capture precise and complete three-dimensional images of the real world. This technique has its own temporality, it is faster than photogrammetry but you still need patience.

It took me a long time to adapt before I felt comfortable underground and could easily orientate myself. There are also a certain number of risks when you visit these places: every time I descend I am in a state of extreme concentration.


Recently, interactivity seems to have become more and more important in your practice. How do you approach this element?

Editing my films has always been a difficult task for me. There is something quite liberating about my new creations, because interactivity allows me to offer these choices directly to the audience, so each person can have a singular experience. In Urbe (one of my major creations about the underground world) and Energēia are two infinite installations, with no time limit. The experience can last anywhere between 2 and 45 minutes, or even longer. Producing works using cutting-edge technologies also allows me to be in contact with many different skills, which I enjoy immensely, in terms of interactive development, sound creation, mapping, etc. Within my team, certain people contribute enormously and are an integral part of the artistic dimension of the project, like Antoine Boucherikha for the sound design, for example.

ENERGEIA - Ugo Arsac - Biennale des Imaginaires Numériques #3
ENERGEIA - Ugo Arsac - Biennale des Imaginaires Numériques #3
The Institut français and the artist

Ugo Arsac has close ties with the Institut français. Featured on IFdigital, the website of French digital creation, he also participated in Novembre Numérique in Ukraine in 2021, in Focus expériences immersives (XR) in June 2022 and will soon be in residence at the Villa Albertine.

Find out more about Ugo Arsac featured on IFdigital

Find out more about Novembre Numérique in Ukraine 

Find out more about Focus expériences immersives (XR) en juin 2022

L'institut français, LAB