White Night, biblical oxymoron
Nuit blanche, the video stained glass window by Teresa Wennberg and Pierre Lobstein, is the White Whale of the electronic arts. An unsinkable, highly symbolic monument. Like Moby Dick, the sperm whale immortalized in Melville's novel, Nuit Blanche has continued for forty years to throw its lights into the ocean of essential human questions launched skyward since the dawn of time. Nuit Blanche is a biblical work. Chiaroscuro type. Dark light.
I witnessed its birth. In 1983.
It was during the Electra exhibition (December 1983 - February 1984), bringing together, under the direction of Frank Popper, theoretician of kinetic art, a group of artists practicing all forms of expression inspired by the marriage of electronics and electricity, under the mischievous eye of the computer.
I remember the electronic lightning of Nuit Blanche streaking the delicate yellow and green fresco by Raoul Dufy, La Fée Electricité, flagship of the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris (since 1937). The organizers of Electra had assigned the Dufy room to a group of Parisian videographers, Grand Canal, of which Pierre and Teresa were part. A large screen made up of 25 video monitors, placed in five rows, constituted their – vertical – demonstration stage. The monitors could receive the images from five different sources, distributed by a dispatcher, thus offering the spectacle of an immense image structured by the moving assembly of various small multiplied images, sketching by their location various geometric figures (in particular this central cross, upside down, like a crucifixion painted by Baselitz) which reinforced their content and plasticity.
Their striking force.
We were there at the height of analog video, in the preambles of digital video. Soon the possibility of digitally composing large fragmented images would arrive, projected as a whole, without resorting to the subterfuge of a mechanical addition of analog sources. It is in this digital form that the Nuit Blanche whale returns today to blow, in our iconic waters, the powerful jet of its sacred metaphors. But everything was already there in 1983.
Video art had already existed for twenty years – since Nam June Paik, in March 1963, exhibited his 13 "prepared televisions" in Wuppertala at the Parnass gallery. First "installation" diverting the banal (but already marvelous) use of the electronic image by the television channels: not to make a television program but to elaborate an artistic work, manufacturing here abstract art, as proclaimed then Paik with pride: "I invented abstract television".
Right away, we had brought video art closer to the art of stained glass. Contrary to the cinema which exposed images projected frontally on a screen, the video offered images engraved by a light coming from the back of the screen, produced internally by a beam of programmed electrons. A technological miracle whose secret lay in the coordination of two cathode-ray tubes, that of an electronic camera and that of an equally electronic receiver. Exactly the same apparent play of lights that occurred when one contemplated the colored drawings contained in the windows of a church. Many video artists, and Nam June Paik above all, have knowingly produced works aspiring to the rank of modern stained glass, erected in the cathedral of contemporary arts. Without necessarily giving these new stained glass windows a sacred meaning. On the contrary, the monumental work designed for the Electra exhibition by Teresa Wennberg and Pierre Lobstein, propels itself by competing with the founding narrative of the religions of the Book. Nuit Blanche offers a heretical version of Genesis, where the role of the Creator is held by Natural Electricity (the unleashed lightning) and that of Adam and Eve by the man and the woman who sign the video tableau (great novelty, this common signature, a sign of equality between artists, man and women). And the Snake? It's a demon rising from the limbo of the Cinema, a vampire howling with pleasure while the thunder vivifies matter and transforms it into earth, into a universe. God or Nature, the first, Spinoza, had dared tov say. And soon after him, Feuerbach proclaimed: it is not God who created men, it is men who created gods. With Nuit Blanche we revisit these antitheological prolegomena of modern philosophy, inspired by scientific reflection. And this message, to be formulated for the first time in 1983, in the lair of the Fairy of Electricity, with its farandole of 108 scholars and thinkers (from Archimedes to Benjamin Franklin, via Galileo, Pascal, Newton, Ampère, the Curies, Edison, Faraday, Watt, Hertz, Röntgen, Mendeleïev) had the force of evidence.
In 2023, Nuit Blanche, even if its fires have gone digital, has lost none of its evil analog charms. Nuit Blanche is and remains an impious stained glass window. All the more impious because his impiety is also exercised with regard to all the sacred myths of Art, the secular substitute for Religion. One can look, today as much as yesterday, Nuit Blanche as a manifesto: that of the appearance of new technologies in Representation. A song to the glory of novelty and diversity, constantly enriched, of the imaging of the world. In this way, Nuit Blanche extends and deepens the discoveries of Nam June Paik made twenty years earlier: "My brushes are the frequencies of 10,000 hertz and my canvas the cathode ray tube of the television screen". A way of revealing that we have to reckon with this new art soon to be called "video art", an art capable of doing painting, sculpture, drawing, even music, dance or literature, but with other instruments.
Teresa Wennberg and Pierre Lobstein use, to create their post-biblical stained glass window, all the tools available to make images in the early 80s, on the eve of the digital revolution. Images from electronic cameras (filming faces, for example, those of Pierre and Teresa here) and images produced by the first graphic palettes (drawing symbolic eyes and mathematical signs, here, the lying 8 of infinity). Created images but also borrowed images (the sumptuous flashes of lightning are taken from a copy of a Hollywood film, the gesticulations of the boxer and the flight of the demon spring from another no less fictional source). The world of images becomes an unlimited field of communicating vessels. In perpetual mutation.
To all these forms of concrete images Nuit Blanche adds three astonishing capacities to modify them: the visual metamorphosis of colors, speeds and even senses.
First, there is this power to colorize at will. The faces (hands, etc.) are not "pink" (flesh-colored) but constantly transfigured by midnight blue filters, violet veils, indigo vapors, mauve solutions. A moving monochrome produced by a "colorizer", a synthetic generator of soft colors. Other colors, rawer, frankly acid, paint the drawing given birth by the graphic palette: this tendril of infinity where two eyes are lodged. It is a festival of frank red, basic green, blue, yellow, pink and emerald, tangled, lively, violent.
In contrast to these clashes of colors, another process breathes indolence into the palpitation of the signs that make up Nuit Blanche. It is the introduction of an image (of the face) into a frame, gradually revealing itself, as one draws a curtain from left to right: effect constitutive of the Slow Scan, an ancestor of the Fax copying machine, in vogue at that time among video artists, who patiently exchanged images over the telephone between Brest and Montpellier, Paris and Boston (two historic experiences in which Pierre Lobstein took part and which I attended). This slow, very slow scan was a negative harbinger of the rapid, dazzling exchanges that the Internet was soon to spread across the planet. A premonitory act of resistance to ultra-speed: thus resonates here the unusual presence of these slow slides.
Finally, the third contribution of a new technology: the ability to write words on the image. By giving them to read letter after letter, in their writing process. At all times, words associated with images have induced the meaning that was to be deciphered in them. Throughout the course of Nuit Blanche our attention is magnetized by these verbs which are scattered under the acidulous eyes of the graph of the Infinite. They are thirteen: pose, direct, browse, search, follow, subtract, steal, seek, fix, devour, judge, threaten, strike down. We quickly guess that they all reflect a position of the gaze. And then we understand that Nuit Blanche must be interpreted according to the act that its subtitle indicates in parentheses: anatomy of a gaze.
An artistic and scientific act at the same time, surgical in both cases. Hence this cutting into twenty-five pieces, this dismemberment, this cartography with a scalpel. Surgery in medicine is a practical act, in art it is a metaphor, which generates conceptual works. Cold by definition.
Yet here everything is warm and sensual: for the sight as for the hearing (soundtrack well struck, flowing, throbbing). It is because this anatomy is that of love. Love is born from the gaze, from the crossing of two gazes, which attract each other, animated by reciprocity.
Nuit Blanche, seen from this angle, deploys the love song of two creators, whose crossed eyes generate a common work. All the shots of faces (which are those of Teresa and Pierre, who use themselves as the subjects of their demonstration) fit into the frame like so many caresses (sketched, promised, expected), caresses of the eyes.
And of the camera: because the camera here is called a Paluche (a facetious invention by Jean-Pierre Beauviala, a brilliant engineer who renewed the practice of shooting with his cameras manufactured by his firm Aaton). The Paluche was a tiny black and white video camera, reduced to its tube, fitting in the palm of a hand and able to lend itself to surprising movements, in space or closer to the body. "Paluche" in slang means the hand. If the eyes promise caresses, it is the hands that accomplish them. Nuit Blanche is a farandole of promises: of art and love tangled. And in particular, this, which will be our conclusion: that there is no arts without tools, no new arts without new tools.
Thank you for these technical details. But the Bible in all of this?
After biting into the forbidden fruit of art (working together), Adam and Eve, remembering their love at first sight, video gracias, became gods.
Name of Zeus!
Jean Paul Fargier
éclairs de "Nuit Blanche"avec Teresa Wennberg pour 25 écrans
lightnings of "White Night" for 25 screens
"Electra", Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Décembre 1983/Fevrier 1984. "Art New Vision" Fuji Television Gallery, Tokyo, Avril1986
"Sömnlösa nätter" Moderna Museet Stockholm 02/2023-01/2024