In Focus: Louise Hervé and Chloé Maillet's Un passage d’eau (The Waterway)

Posted on 17 October 2014 by Liverpool Biennial

Video still from Louise Hervé and Chloé Maillet's 'Un passage d'eau' (The Waterway) (2014). HD film, colour and sound, 23' (II)

Video still from Louise Hervé and Chloé Maillet's 'Un passage d'eau' (The Waterway) (2014). HD film, colour and sound, 23' (II)

When art meets science… Liverpool Biennial Mediator Elio Ticca explores how Louise Hervé and Chloé Maillet tackle themes of mutation, self-improvement and ecology in their film The Waterway, thinking in particular about the way in which their work is informed by various genres, including science fiction and mockumentary.

The Girl: Didn't you just love the picture? I did. But I just felt so sorry for the creature at the end.
Sherman: Sorry for the creature? What did you want? Him to marry the girl?
The Girl: He was kinda scary-looking, but he wasn't really all bad. I think he just craved a little affection - you know, a sense of being loved and needed and wanted.
Sherman: That’s an interesting point of view.

Marilyn Monroe and Tom Ewell in The Seven Year Itch, by Billy Wilder(1955)

‘We know more about other parts of the Solar System than we do our own ocean.’ How many times have we read a similar statement in recent scientific articles? This declaration, similar to those of many other researchers, comes from an oceanographer, Sylvia Earle, in  a 2013 interview about undersea morphology and ecosystems. How can a little-investigated space be depicted then, with artistic clarity? If the scientific community looks at marine depths with riveting attention, Louise Hervé and Chloé Maillet provide a hypothetical portrait of those little-known recesses. In The Waterway, cinematic fiction and special effects become aesthetic tools and triggers for ethical issues: the passion for aquatic wildlife is represented as an interdisciplinary debate, and a pretext.

The location of this work within the Biennial Exhibition could not be more inspirational: a vintage-style, deep blue cinema, next to  Peter Wächtler’s sculptures of aquatic creatures, with a mural within an architectural dome, floating above our heads. In this marine-like environment inside The Old Blind School, the film depicts lives affected by watery interactions. Clients of a centre for thalassotherapy are trained in a swimming pool; others are interviewed about the health benefits of seawater. An eccentric club, composed of a physician and writer, a biologist, and a bricoleur, researches on the myth of Atlantis and aquatic life. A young fisherman meets them, looking for answers to a discovery out of the ordinary. In the depths of the sea, scuba-clad divers study archaeological remains. 

All these narratives are developed as references to different movie genres: natural science TV programme, documentary, mockumentary, sci-fi movies, and video-art.

We see, however, more than a postmodernist reference. It seems as though Louise and Chloé's goal is not to satisfy the spectator: they appear to have made the film for its own sake. By recalling the methodology of the early artistic avant-gardes, like Dadaism and Surrealism, they simultaneously create a hybrid, both unseen before and in ideal continuity with those early twentieth-century art movements. Méret Oppenheim, René Magritte, Luis Buñuel and Jean Cocteau for instance, were just a few of the artists who toyed with the commonplace, interrupting the ordinary with uncanny ruptures, beyond mere sight.

René Magritte, 'L'Invention collective' (1934). Oil on canvas. Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf

Louise and Chloé break through the lethargy of the everyday with the same sceptic irony of the Surrealists, however, they seem to ask: after avant-gardist objects, how can we narrate the obsession with aging, the fetishisisation of women’s bodies through the media, and the persistence of transcultural myths and symbols? Like Buñuel’s  army of ants flowing from a hand, or Oppenheim’s furred teacup, what are the disturbances in the collective unconscious yet to be discovered?

They seem to ask: after avant-gardist objects, how can we narrate the obsession with aging, the fetishisisation of women’s bodies through the media, and the persistence of transcultural myths and symbols?

The most complex figure of the movie is the visionary Ondine, a former biologist fond of lobsters, carps and clams. By having a thermal mud bath, she practices a special treatment to ‘not be human anymore.’ The result is a radical conversion into a new organism: a reversal of a mermaid, a breed as unattractive as the creature from the Black Lagoon, one of the classic movie monsters, pitied by Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch. If aggressive cinematic mutants were sexualised in the past, testosterone for today’s hybrids is no longer a bias. Philosopher Beatriz Preciado coined a term to describe contemporary self-experimentation: ‘the principle of the auto-guinea pig’, which is also as a constitutive moment for political subjectivity. As she argues, such claims enable ‘a positioned, responsible corporal practice’. By taking testosterone as a self-testing investigation, while writing one of her books, Testo Junkie, Preciado asserts that the researcher’s assumptions concerning the future should be embodied first of all by her/himself. The contemporary scientist, then, can achieve unexpected results by performing as ‘the lab rat in her or his own laboratory’. So does Ondine.

Louise Hervé during the shooting of 'Un Passage d'Eau' (The Waterway) (2014)

Beside science fiction and natural sciences, Chloé and Louise’s film provides space for considering another issue dear to both: archaeology. The discipline informs their own artistic inquiry, as  Louise argued in an interview: ‘archaeologists work from hypotheses. And it’s just the same for science fiction writers: they take a detail or set of objects, then try to project hypotheses, but in a prospective, forward-looking way. These intersections are what interested us.’

By referencing biosciences and cybernetics, Louise and Chloé also raise questions about the ethics of the scientist

In The Archaeology of Knowledge, Michel Foucault similarly described this field of research, while differencing it from philosophical and historical analysis. As he put it, such practice ‘is much more willing than the history of ideas to speak of discontinuities, ruptures, gaps, entirely new forms of positivity, and of sudden redistributions’. Tangible proofs for historical evidence represent then both an instrument of, and a threat towards, knowledge. A new discovery can be a potential rupture of the state of things, at the expenses of a constituted cultural order.

Ben Chapman as the 'Gill-Man' in 'Creature from the Black Lagoon' (1954)

Louise and Chloé reformulate present issues of post-humanity by invoking archaeology as a way of life: the study of the past stands as a saucerful of opportunities, a foresight of futurable forms of life. They further highlight anthropocentrism as one of the issues at stake, not only in science, but in any field of research. This aspect is made thorny by the sophistication of technology, a challenge involving the contemporary scientific community on marine exploration: some researchers, for instance, claim that undersea high-tech robots exceed human explorers in versatility and autonomy.

The possibility that a mutant species could develop in the ocean, moreover, does not exclude, for the filmmakers, that we can do the same onshore, in a faster way we could ever conjecture. That said, Louise and Chloé also suggest that longevity can have a price: a radical change of appearance. By imagining such metamorphosis with a zoomorphic anatomy, they subtly make a joke of beauty and the cinematic fetishism of it, but also of the most common sexuality of movie monsters - very often, heterosexually masculinised. Unlike 1950s sea hybrids, the self-experimental Ondine, fond of marine ecosystems, may forget dry land for more interesting scenarios.

Un passage d’eau (The Waterway) is on view at The Old Blind School for Liverpool Biennial 2014 until Sunday 26 October. 

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