Please wait a few moments while we process your request
Please wait...

Jean Gagnon

Blind Date in Cyberspace or the Figure that Speaks

Luc Courchesne, Portrait One, 1990
[Text originally published in Artintact 2 : CR-ROMagazin interaktiver Kunst = artists' interactive CD-ROMagazine (Karlsruhe : ZKM/Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie Karslruhe; Ostfildern : Cantz Verlag, 1995).]

Luc Courchesne has been interested in portraiture for a long time. In 1982, while still studying at the Massachussets Institute of Technology, he did Twelve of Us, a short five minutes video, probably his best known single-channel tape, in which different people are seen in medium shot trying to remember the story of the three bears. Each person is captured with his or her particular facial expressions, revealing features not only of a face but of self-presentation to others - to Courchesne as videomaker and, by extension, to us, the viewers. The facial expressions are also tied to intonations, laughters, giggling, and so forth, echoing the inner states of the person in the situation of self-revelation in front of the camera.

In Twelve of Us, Courchesne used talking heads and the anecdotal mode of oral speech. Through these, the work was already leaning towards what would become crucial in the interactive portraits: direct address to the viewer, dialogue, and intersubjectivity. He sought to reveal aspects of persons through recollections of childhood memories, thus creating a channel of intimacy between him and his subjects, and between them and the viewers that operates through the empathic presentation of faces, vocal expressiveness, and the sharing of common memories.

Then, it was almost a natural thing for Courchesne to get involved with interactive portraiture. As he states himself: "I use hypermedia to make portraits. A portrait of someone is an account of an encounter between the author and the subject. Painted portraits were made over long periods of time and therefore are more conceptual than photographic portraits. They encapsulate in one single image hours of interaction between the model and the painter. Photography, on the other hand, makes realistic portraits. The talent of the portrait photographer is to wait and pick the right moment ? the moment when the person expresses the density of his or her being; the subject and the photographer wait for the magic moment in complicity. In my portraits, the entire encounter is recorded, and material is extracted to construct a mechanics of interaction that will allow visitors to conduct their own interviews." (1) Here, Courchesne refers mostly to his piece entitled Family Portrait (1993), where the notion of encounter is central, and what is rendered for the viewer is a fragment of the original encounter between the artist and the persons whose portraits we interact with. But what about his earlier interactive piece Portrait One (1990), in which we encounter a fictional character, Marie? Is the fragmented documentation of a real encounter more truthful than the conversation we may have with a fictive persona? In a way, the answer is no, because both rely on the subjective part of us that we give away each time we converse and engage in dialogue. These works are representations of our subjective stance, of our being-for-others; they animate in us, the viewers, the very foundation of our subjectivity.

Interactivity and Intersubjectivity 

Portrait One is a fictional work and a framed encounter with a character. But unlike other interactive works, it is not a narrative piece, as multi layered as it may be. It is structured so that the viewer can converse with Marie. And it is precisely as a conversation, through a dialogic structure, that the piece establishes its empathic claim on us. It works at many levels, through non verbal clues such as facial expressions and eye contact and through verbal strategies of oral and direct address. To experience Portrait One, is, simply put, to encounter Marie. The only experience one can have of the piece is by encountering the young woman whose face we see on the screen and by having a conversation with her. 0therwise, it is impossible to experience this work, or one would face a mere image, an inanimate portrait not different than, say, a photograph, with much less definition than a photograph. So it is only by interacting with the piece through a dialogic posture that one can experience it.

I should clarify the terms 'conversation' and 'dialogue' I have used so far. The encounter in question is with a machine ? a video screen and a computer-controlled videodisc (or a CD ROM in the present version). The conversation or dialogue one has with Marie is certainly not a real one, and the parameters ? the subject matters we can talk about, the different paths by which our dialogues unfold ? have been preset by the artist: But at the same time, the work constitutes a type of verbal interaction that has many of the characteristics of interpersonal exchange. We find co-present to each other two 'subjects', one virtual (Marie), one actual (the viewer). Both use linguistic indicators of persons, the pronouns 'I' and 'you', which mark and re-mark the enunciation and are also, according to Francis Jacques, (2) respectively, the actual and the virtual persons of the dialogic exchange. As the conversation unfolds, the interlocutors try to establish a common ground of understanding through 'co-references', using situational indexes to refer to the context of their conversation. These indeed are some features and elements we can find in real dialogues between two persons.

Portrait One however, is different from a photographic portrait. The latter refers to something that was and ultimately to death (Barthes), while Courchesne's interactive portrait is experienced in the present of the conversation, although, as we will see, it may refer to the past but not as what has been or is dead, but rather as what is forever happening in the present of the verbal interaction. Thus, the interactive portrait calls for me as interlocutor, and in fact it does not reveal as much of the portrayed subject as it does of myself as I engage in the dialogic dynamic of ex/change. Thus, it is my own subjective positioning that is played out through language, through verbal interactions, through ex/change: when I exteriorize myself and change position, when by saying what I say, I establish my placement in front of my interlocutor. (3) This ex/change is also a fracture of my egocentricity because I will only grasp myself by encountering the other person. It is then possible to argue that the subject of Courchesne's interactive Portrait One is myself.

At the core of this work, as in the following one, Family Portrait, we find the notion of subjectivity as inter-subjectivity. Both works rely on language, thus lending themselves to a pragmatic approach to subjective experience. What is a person and what can we know of another person? Gaston Bachelard wrote that what we know of another person is what we imagine, and this would summarize the extent to which philosophical enquiry has succeeded in penetrating this question. It was also the great discovery of psychoanalysis that language, the spoken word, is the royal road to the unconscious, and that it is structured as a language, to use Jacques Lacan's famous expression. In fact, a person reveals himself by talking to me, and even Descartes' cogito (I think, therefore I am) seems to rely on an underlying and unanalyzed dimension: I talk, therefore I think. Many critics of Descartes' brilliant demonstration of the cogito have highlighted its inherent solipsism, and even phenomenological systems, such as Sartre's, suffer from the same foreclosure of subjectivity onto itself because the ego and the alter ego are thought of in a specular relationship based on the look, especially in love. What is interesting, then, about Luc Courchesne's work is that it positions subjectivity as intersubjectivity within the framework of verbal interaction, in conversation and dialogue, within the linguistic occurrence of the 'I'. For to say 'I' is to refer first to the discursive act and second to the speaker. 'I' is distinguished from another person who is not 'I', being, within a statement, the witness of the subject of enunciation. But this position can be reversed when the address see in turn says 'I'. We can now begin to see that we are no longer facing the well-rounded subject of the cogito, or even the all-perceiving subject of the cinema, but rather a fluctuating subject, a fractured subject in the ex/change of the verbal interaction. Thus the other person is a linguistic function in a dialogic relation; the recognition of others is linked to the very practice of language in which both the subject and the other ex/change positions.

Fictive Conversations

But, of course, Marie is not real, she is part of a computer-controlled system, and the viewer interacts with her by using a computer mouse to choose questions and answers on the screen. The dialogic situation thus created would fall within the category of what Francis Jacques calls the 'playful context' which is a form of 'mutilated speech' as opposed to 'sincere speech.' (4) In that category, we find the actor's paradoxical 'I' or Rimbaud's poetic 'I is another'. Portrait One is a playful representation of subjectivity as intersubjectivity. It possesses many levels of objectivity for the viewer: the technological objectivity of the apparatus confronting him, the objectivity of the parameters of interaction preset by the artist, which are at first unknown to him as interlocutor but which can become known through the process of playing with the system. This objectivity then resembles that of a game with rules that distinguish it from daily activities, behaviours, and attitudes; players in order to play must abide by the rules, and if one of them cheats the game does not work anymore. With Portrait One one must be willing to enter into the playful aspect of the conversational. Portrait One is also fictional, unlike Family Portrait, which is a documentary. The fictional aspect in conversation is important to highlight because, again, it implies the playfulness of language in daily situations. The fictional mode of conversation is in opposition to the serious mode of daily activities and social practice. The serious mode is based on sincerity, which is the warrant of the necessary continuity of social coherence. It is based on pertinence for rationality and efficacy. Beside this serious mode of the quotidian exist the different worlds of the imagination: daydreaming, play, fiction, fairy tales, myths, jokes, and the like. All of these are specific modifications in one's relation to daily reality. Thus, the serious mode of conversation and the types of verbal interactions within it constitute reality and construct our daily reality aimed at practical ends. The playful modes depart from this quotidian use of language, normal and normative, to escape into imaginary worlds where amusement will prevail. In this mode, the telos of everyday efficiency of language is suspended to make room for another type of relationship to reality and others. Fiction in conversation can be defined as follows: it is a "mode of interaction, i.e., an aspect of the structuration of verbal interactions corresponding to the interpretation by the speaker as to what constitutes reality." (5)

If we now consider examples from the dialogues we find in Portrait One, we notice that both the actual person of the viewer and the virtual person, Marie, are constantly trying to establish the proper context of their conversation. They first try to identify themselves - who they are and what common interests they might have - and if Marie or the viewer is not satisfied, she or he may turn away. All the while, Marie repeatedly refers to her own situation as a virtual being:

"I like you too. Unfortunately it's hard for me to contemplate anything. I have no future! I'm not like you..."

"I have only my past. Time stopped for me the day I became what I am now."

"Because I'm a portrait. My real existence lies elsewhere."

In these excerpts we see that Marie establishes her own situation in the continuing present of the past, which is re-actualized each time she enters into dialogues. We see as well that for her interlocutor the context here is one of closure into a very determinate present. It is difficult to spell out all the possible dialogues in the piece, although the combinations and dialogic paths are not infinite. But for the viewer and interlocutor, the situation is one that is filled both with certainty (I speak with a prerecorded persona who has only the past and no future) and uncertainty (I don't know in advance where my choice of questions or answers will lead me).

Marie is also a seducer and she knows it, but as she states :

"It is true that we can be scared to let ourselves be loved. The threatening love of another... See... I could tell you that I love you... I love you! But how does that commit me? You... You are not afraid?"

"With me its too easy. I can only be the impossible love, a detour which occupies desire at no risk."

What could be quite similar to many so called erotic/pornographic CD-ROMS loaded with simulacra of intimacy is here deconstructed when she refers to the vacuity of the desire she triggers at no risk. In the virtual context of this conversational situation - and this would be the fictive part of the game -illocutionary statements bear no consequences. To say "I love you" is to take a stance and to run the risk that the other person may turn away. Such a statement has an illocutionary force that modifies the intersubjective positioning of the interlocutors. But here, however, no one is at risk :

"Yes but with me, your gesture doesn't bear any consequences. Will you dare as much with the person that's standing by?"

"It is true that you cannot reach me, that you cannot change me. But look at the people around you: Are they so different from me? Can they be reached? Some believe that it is impossible to be in communion with a person... that it is a great illusion."

"Here is what I think. The others are very close yet so far away! The most creative gesture is one that leads to another human being. This gesture is not useless. Bonds are made. Children are born. Actions are taken. Systems are instituted. All of it because of one gesture, one word. It's crazy! We are the product of this gesture toward another person... and it has to be repeated forever."

Here Marie raises an ethical question. As for the vacuous desire she represents, the relationship we can have with her forces us to think about the authenticity of our involvement or committment to relationships in the larger scale of social life. Francis Jacques writes: "The reality of the other person becomes problematic only to someone who is unaware of his duty," (6) the duty of reciprocity and response, which in this case is also the duty to play. Luc Courchesne raises the important issue of how we meet others in a telecommunication environment, and of how we meet ourselves, through others, in a virtual environment such as the CD-ROM or, more generally, in the context of digital media that will increasingly surround us.

It is ultimately the very notion of social community that Courchesne's work questions. A fundamental solitude marks a highly mediatized society like ours. For solitude is to refuse the risks to ex/change by encountering others and to prefer the safe virtuality of mediated desires and fantasies, to prefer blind dates in cyberspace to face to face encounters with the person next to us.

Jean Gagnon © 2000 FDL

(1) "Family Portrait: The Art of Portraiture," Luc Courchesne: Interactive Portraits (Ottawa: National Gallery of Canada, 1994): 3.

(2) Francis Jacques, Dialogiques. Recherches logiques sur le dialogue (Paris : Presses Universitaires de France, 1979).

(3) See François Flahault, La parole intermédiaire (Paris : Éditions du Seuil, 1978).

(4) Francis Jacques, op. cit., p. 55.

(5) Pierre Bange, "Une modalité des interactions verbales : Fiction dans la conversation", in DRALV, Revue de linguistique, no 34-35 (Paris : Centre de Recherche de l’Université de Paris VIII, 1986) : 215.

(6) Francis Jacques, ibid., p. 7.