New York

Céleste Boursier-Mougenot

Paula Cooper Gallery | 529 West 21st Street

Though it’s been years now since Chelsea became the new SoHo, the area still seems to exist at the edge of the action. There are more places to eat and drink, but thankfully it hasn’t yet acquired the outdoor-mall atmosphere of its cousin to the south. Céleste Boursier-Mougenot’s recent sound-and-video installation invited the viewer to become intimately familiar with one of the neighborhood’s unremarkable comers. The modesty of the short stretch of West Twenty-first Street near Tenth Avenue was well matched by the artist’s straightforward presentation, which, despite the relatively sophisticated electronic gadgetry, downplayed technical wizardry in favor of a slow process of immersion into the local ambience.

In Boursier-Mougenot’s Videodrones, 2001, five large video projections abutted one another along a curved wall built for the exhibition. Five cameras recorded the street from a window on the gallery’s second floor, feeding real-time images into the space. Three projections came from slightly different views of the intersection of Twenty-first and Tenth, while the other two captured activity along the sidewalk. The varying levels of light passing through the cameras determined the piece’s aural element, which was given its own powerful presence. As in the artist’s other “Videodrone” works, incoming signals were run through a digital amplification system that translates light into sound—here, according to a system that resulted in a dirgelike sound track. Overtones of the church could be detected, but the somber music always fell just short of the ecclesiastical. The layers of sound interacted with one another and morphed as the scene outside unfolded. During intervals when the traffic and pedestrian flow briefly subsided, the tones were diminished to a low hum. At other moments, the mix appeared to build toward a crescendo, only to collapse again as bicycles and cars briefly disappeared from the screen.

Despite the (somewhat hidden) cameras’ recording of the street from overhead, there was no explicit reference to a Big Brother-style command of the area. Rather, one’s attention was entirely devoted to figuring out how the different views of the environment related to one another. The viewer’s first impulse (having already sunk into the comfortable bean-bag couches lining the walls) was to work out where the cameras were located; the arrangement came together only after several minutes of viewing, during which a strong tension emerged between a sensation of fragmented immediacy, derived from the knowledge that the images were live and captured in proximity to the gallery, and the perception that it had been filmed in the past, as the video’s cinematic qualities suggested. Chelsea’s everyday rhythm was given structure, yet it emerged in the shape of a story that never took on solid contours.

Boursier-Mougenot’s manipulation of technology has precursors in the video work of the ’70s, which similarly encouraged an awareness of space-time relations. He also makes use of the strategies of site-specific practices, though in this case the form of the installation was dependent not on the particular qualities of the gallery but on the dynamics of the surrounding urban zone, whose random fluctuations provide an engaging sensory display. Beyond the unseen hardware, his materials consisted solely of the ever-present sights and sounds that a city constantly produces, even when nothing seems to be happening.

Gregory Williams