Memory Lane

20 april - 22 mei 2016
Memory Lane

Realms of Memory

by Pau Waelder

'Memory Lane' was inspired from several locations in the districts of Ribadesella and Llanes, Asturias (Spain) which shape Félix Luque and Iñigo Bilbao's childhood and youth memories. Better yet, these natural environments – strands, rocky areas, woodland – do not simply inspire this project: they literally feed it. Turned into data via 3D scanning and modelling, these locations served as mould to the sculpted pieces the final installation consists of. On the one hand, a camera slowly traveling through a 3D model depicts on two big screens the locations which are now nothing but millions of white dots on a black background. Objects are gently outlined so that one can still make out thick woodland and rocky areas. Yet, the black-and-white image is dimly lit at its core and one is left but imagining what cannot be actually seen and could possibly lurk in the darkness. On the other, a sand rock, which was scanned and reproduced in full detail – with the exception of its colour and weight, floats on top of powerful electromagnets within a structure that shifts horizontally. The noise caused by the magnetic field is enhanced to create a sound environment that wraps both art works in an almost meditative ambience. The installation forms in this way a coherent unit: sand rock and landscape – slowly shifting together and coming through as hyper-realist as well as clearly artificial – are two aspects of the same investigation on memory and space, on perception of reality and on the human capacity of generating fiction, either by means of a simple child's game or of a complex technological process.

It is worth taking a moment to discuss the devices employed in the creation of these art works in order to fully grasp their form and meaning. A 3D scanner gathers information on the surfaces surrounding it. It captures the exact position of millions of points thanks to a laser that rotates on its own axis and provides in this way reliable coordinates in space. A 3D scanner considers its own hardware as the pivot of a spherical system. The laser ascertains form and position of any object by projecting itself onto different surfaces and storing the collected data in form of points. This so- called 'point cloud' is a rather fragmented but extremely precise 3D model. Needless to say, the device captures anything but itself: the result is an exact reproduction of the surroundings, though always with a perfect circle on the ground standing for the position of the scanner itself. As all coordinates are taken from the standing point of the device, its reconstruction of space is bound to just one perspective: the scanner is unable to capture what lies behind the surfaces it scans. Several takes from different positions are usually needed to achieve a thorough model of an entire landscape. Scanning an object is a somehow reverse process instead: the scanner captures the surface of the object from different perspectives and only afterwards all the partial takes are brought together in a single 3D model faithfully reproducing the object. The process is similar to sculpting.

It does remind of the pointing machine which became popular in the 19th c. and allows to accurately copy plaster models into stone by marking reference points defining the form of the original. This is then how the 3D scanner sculpts the landscapes of Ribadesella and Llanes into 3D models as well as the model of the sand rock, resulting from milling an epoxy block with a five-axis robot. Both sculptures suggest a tactile experience, whether in the space voids defining the surfaces of rocks and trees or in the precise cut of the block the sand rock reproduction is sculpted out of. This tactility is mere optical illusion though. The artists make it obvious in order to influence the way technological resources reproduce reality. As a matter of fact Félix Luque is interested in the possibility of creating fiction out of the digitalisation of an existing location1. The location chosen for such process is not just any place though. In the artist's own word, it is a location of 'great potential for the imagination' instead.

Lieux de mémoire

The locations Luque and Bilbao selected embody this very potential as they were the backdrops of their own childhood's fantasies and youthful dreams. The artists spent their summer holidays there, bound to no daily grinds, in between reality and imagination. By being digitalised, these places turn into what the historian Pierre Nora identifies as lieux de mémoire: they mark a historic moment, remembrance is deliberately generated, a site assumes symbolic value (Nora, 1989:12). This has nothing to do with history, though. This has to do with the artists' story instead, with the role these locations play in their biographies. These are therefore places in their personal memories. Their value is strictly linked to their own individual experiences, thus lacks the shared referents of a collective memory. These places are unknown to the viwers who will recognise them just by their most basic features, no matter how precisely they were reproduced. Specific locations become in this way universal: the artists re-elaborated them so carefully that they could accommodate the memories of just anyone. They distance themselves from the reality they were factually taken from and are turned into sites which, as the lieux de mémoire, 'have no referent in reality; or, rather, they are their own referent: pure, exclusively self-referential signs' (Nora, 1989:23). Their very nature turns them into fictional spaces. Although having all necessary means at disposal to create photorealistic sceneries, the artists deliberately opted for a point cloud instead which, as Luque describes it, 'is not cinema, not photography, not even reality.' Digitalisation is not just the plain creation of a simple image. It reaches further: it allows the creation of a mouldable reality thanks to a 3D model that establishes a brand new way of perception. With these images viewers experience a real, tangible place revealing itself at the same time as a succession of geometrical coordinates, a complex of points in a simulated setting.

At the same time, the precision of the generated model gives way to an unprecedented level of complexity in the concept of archive and memory. Indeed Pierre Nora warns that our society suffers from a hypertrophy of memory caused by the necessity of filing it all without a prior reflection on what is truly worth it (Farr, 2012:63). Digital media make filing extremely easy and generate in the process vast amounts of data which, exactly as the selected locations in Ribadesella and Llanes, can be reconstructed and manipulated. Memory will not rely on old, yellowing pictures anymore. It will be instead increasingly constructed on meticulous reproductions of actual places in form of 3D models which will be nonetheless hollow, deceptive. In Nora's view our memory is already, 'intensely retinal, powerfully televisual' (Farr, 2012:66) as it is based on photography and video. The landscapes Luque and Bilbao generated indicate another kind of memory altogether that relies on precise models of reality captured at a given time, of places which can be visited, explored and altered on. Memory becomes much more precise, though unreal at the same time. It turns into a systematic capture of all details and reminds of the condition of Ireneo Funes, Jose Luis Borges' fictional character: he could remember each and every detail of anything he had perceived, 'not only every leaf of every tree of every wood, but also every one of the times he perceived or imagined it' (Borges, 1971:125). The crammed memory of Funes finds its equivalent in the capacity of the 3D scanner to capture all details of a chaotic or extremely complex space as the woods and the rocky shores of the Bay of Biscay. It is a memory that stretches much further than the human one, able to even substitute its own experience of a place: while vivid memory is far more complete or sharp than what can be captured on a picture or video, a 3D model allows us to know what was actually there, even if we did not see it first hand. As mentioned before, though incredibly precise, the generated model always lacks a fragment: the scanner leaves a circular void on the ground where it stood. There are no data on this void because the scanner cannot capture itself. As it happens in our memory, vivid experiences are taken in from a personal perspective and do not include our own image: the presence of the observer leaves a void in the capture of what has been experienced. This absence is highlighted by the artists in the 3D models reproducing the locations of their childhood by keeping the void caused by the hardware of the scanner itself. This dark circle, that could be easily mistaken for a hole, interrupts the precise contours of the rendered land in each scenery and acquires in this way an aura of mystery thanks to its abrupt suspension of the illusion of reality as well as thanks to the light it spreads. It is simply impossible to ignore it. Its presence-absence is so enigmatic as the monolith in '2001: A Space Odyssey' (Stanley Kubrick, 1968) or the dodecahedron in Félix Luque's 'Chapter I : The Discovery.' It reminds us that what we are observing is nothing but an artialised space.

'I have nothing to say about landscapes. Landscape does not exist, it is just an illusion' (Perec, 1974). The French author Georges Perec jokes about a concept Alain Roger already wrote about in his 'Court traité du paysage': 'A landscape [.../...] is never natural, but always cultural' (Roger, 1994). As suggested by the French philosopher, a location is turned into a landscape by means of a process of artialisation, namely the transformation – either by direct intervention or simply by way of looking – of nature in a place of aesthetic contemplation (Roger, 1994). To somebody living in it, the countryside does not have the connotations of a landscape. To someone living in the city, it definitely does. A certain estrangement – namely, the condition of a stranger visiting these locations just occasionally, contemplating them without bias – is a necessity. Rivadesella and Llanes never stopped being holiday destinations to Félix Luque and Iñigo Bilbao. And even if now the artists are not on holiday but at work, their look keeps on being estranged allowing both locations to turn, as in Roger's words, into landscapes. Their digitalisation complete their artilisation: the data captured by the scanner allow the construction of a fiction that, as already stated before, is clearly expressed in the processing of the resulting image. Woods and strands are not places to be used anymore to play, surf or relax. They are not even real. They are images of places to be gazed upon instead. The definition of place itself, as by Perec, is questioned: 'l’espace, c'est ce qui arrête le regard, ce sur quoi la vue butte : l'obstacle : des briques, un angle, un point de fuite : l'espace, c'est quand ça fait un angle, quand ça s'arrête, quand il faut tourner pour que ça reparte' (Perec, 1974:109). The author's words remind of how the scanner works, how its 'gaze' stumbles on the objects in its surroundings and produces the space we look at. This space is nothing but a void that allows the laser to reach all surfaces mapped on the point cloud. It is from this very void that we extract the illusion of a place. And from this place, the illusion of a memory.

Clarke's third law

A rock levitates and slowly shifts. It could be sheer magic, optical illusion. It is a technological achievement instead: the rock is made of dense but light epoxy foam. Magnets are attached on its base. A platform with a magnetic levitation system was installed on a motorised table allowing the sculpture to shift horizontally. The movement, which compares to the slow camera travel of the two animations included in the installation, emphasizes the visual effect of levitation and puts the rock even more in the spotlight. As for the locations, here as well an interplay between reality and fiction takes place. The rock indeed levitates defying all laws of gravity. It is clear though that we are not looking at an actual rock and that its levitation is not magic but is staged employing sophisticated technological resources. The artists deliberately opted not to hide these mechanisms. All was left to see in a system that keeps on being extremely fascinating notwithstanding its openness. 'The rock stands for children's imagination,' says Félix Luque, 'a rock that levitates embodies the imaginative potential.' The role the rock plays in this installation exemplifies the relation among science, technology and fiction, a subject Luque often deals with in his works: the object is mysterious but accessible at the same time because it does not conceal the processes generating it. Quite the opposite, it aims at the aestheticisation of the machine which does not execute a programme with an utilitarian purpose but presents itself instead as a sculpture, an object of contemplation and reflection.

Gilbert Simondon, the French philosopher, stated on the widespread perception of technical objects that, 'Culture behaves towards the technical object much in the same way as a man caught up in primitive xenophobia behaves towards a stranger [.../...] the machine is a stranger to us; it is a stranger in which what is human is locked in, unrecognized, materialized and enslaved, but human nonetheless' (Simondon, 2008:31). Luque flirts with this very perception of machines, as unfamiliar objects, shifting between fascination and rejection, as well as with the concept of machines as solely useful technical objects. Again, Simondon states on this regard, 'Culture is unbalanced because, while it grants recognition to certain objects, for example to things aesthetic, and gives them their due place in the world of meanings, it banishes other objects, particularly things technical, into the unstructured world of things that have no meaning but do have a use, a utilitarian function' (Simondon, 2008:32). Félix Luque claims an aesthetic component for the technical object: he creates machines which do not execute a utilitarian task but generate processes with some kind of narrative. Looking at the rock that levitates could possibly remind us of the British writer Arthur C. Clarke and the third of his Three Laws on scientific development, which he formulated in 1962: 'Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.' With this sentence, the author establishes a connection between the so-called 'two cultures', namely science and humanities, as described by the physicist C. P. Snow in an influential text of 1959. Moreover, it gives the chance of bringing together intuition and imagination with the rigour and precision of scientific and technological methods. In his works Luque employs advanced technology in order to present us with something enigmatic, somehow magical, that activates our own imagination and encourages us to communicate with a machine, this stranger that, as exemplified by this very project, could help us getting in touch with something deeply human.

Pau Waelder, July 2015

  • Borges, J. L.: Ficciones. Barcelona: Planeta, 1971
  • Farr, I. [editor]: Memory: Documents of Contemporary Art. London - Cambridge: The Whitechapel Gallery - MIT Press, 2012
  • Nora, P.: Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Memoire. In: Representations, No. 26, Special Issue: Memory and Counter-Memory (Spring, 1989). Berkeley: University of California Press, 7-24, 1989
  • Perec, G.: Espèces d’espaces. Paris: Editions Galilée, 1974
  • Roger, A.: Breu tractat del paisatge. Barcelona: Edicions La Campana, 2000
  • Simondon, G.: El modo de existencia de los objetos técnicos. Buenos Aires: Prometeo Libros, 2008 
  • 1. All quotes by Félix Luque are taken from an interview of June 24th, 2015