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29.11.2016 INTERVIEW
Celeste Boursier-Mougenot

Celeste Boursier-Mougenot Foto: Torben Zenth.

Balancing constraint with chance - interview with Celeste Boursier-Mougenot

This winter Céleste Boursier-Mougenot presents the largest version of his acoustic installation from here to ear to date at Copenhagen Contemporary, drawing upon the legacy of such movements as american experimental music and Fluxus. The installation contains 88 zebra finches as they perch and settle upon carefully tuned electric guitars, plucking chords and making a unique composition of sounds.

Throughout his career Céleste Boursier-Mougenot has intertwined medias and disciplines involving science, technology, animals and plants. Born in 1961 he began as a composer, before turning to the arts. Since the debut at P.S.1 in 1999 he has been experimenting and refining his complex pieces, and in 2015 he represented France at the French Pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale. A few days before the opening at CC I was given the opportunity to speak with Céleste about his work.

Céleste Boursier-Mougenot (b. 1961) lives and works in Sète, France. Trained as a musician and composer working with the French avant-garde theatre Pascal Rambert for ten years, he began working with installation art in the mid-1990s, incorporating sounds and stage craft from the realm of theatre in his art. Boursier-Mougenot has presented solo exhibitions at prominent venues such as Musée des Beaux-Arts de Montréal in Montréal, Palais de Tokyo in Paris and the Barbican Art Gallery in London. In 2015 he represented France at the 56th Venice Biennale.

AF Nina Wöhlk

COPENHAGEN CONTEMPORARY
From here to ear v. 21
Celeste Boursier-Mougenot
25.11.16 - 05.03.17

Can you tell about the installation process - how the individual space affects your adaption of the piece to the particular site?
Yes, at first I ask for a site visit and for a plan of the space. In the case of CC they inquired specifically for this work, so i went to see how it could be installed. I love to be in close contact with the work. Though I am not going to build everything myself anymore, I want to be in touch with the piece and do the corrections.

During the installation process I ask myself the same questions as when I first started to do this piece. Now I have spend ten days with the birds here, listening, having the same doubts and concerns about to how make work the best. Yesterday morning I was here from 8 and left at 8 to give all my attention to the piece.

It is a very immediate and appealing work, can you tell a little about how it came to have that particular title?
From here to ear is from 1995 but the title was at that time in french d'ici à ici, meaning from here to here, and I had originally made the work for two rooms. Then in 1999 I was at a residency at P.S.1 (now MoMA P.S.1) and was ment to show in the Clocktower Gallery but I got the opportunity to use a big empty space that was vacant due to the planned show being postponed. I wanted to show from here to here and asked for two spaces, but that was impossible, and so she piece transformed into how it is today.

For P.S.1 I did a version with coat hangers as I had a large box of them with me from Paris. Earlier I had seen kids in a backyard i Paris building barriers with them, and thought they had great potential, but it took me a long time to find the sound in them. But I could see that it was perfect for this large space, so I did some tests with the coat hangers, harpsichord strings and birds in my studio and they worked perfectly. And because my english was not so good at that time I said the title was from here to ear and it stayed that way. Many things in the arts are made like this - you make a mistake and it becomes part of it. 

Both with the space and the title chance are forming things. It is interesting that you allow space for it and show flexibility instead of keeping things fixed. In your acoustic installations, is there a desire to not fix things and does it come from your time as a composer - to keep the work alive
The piece is alive - it is not a fixed idea but a work in progress for me, a score in three dimensions - a space score. All musicians will tell you first hand what they think they hear - their immediate interpretation. The idea to fix a thing makes me sad and anxious. To say you only have this version, when with each new listening you have a new idea. Here in my work I can modify and switch my position from being the listener to the composer, and my corrections are based on a kind of very distant listening - through a long period. And then at some point i think the piece is done and i can recognise it as my work.

In a way I am still a musician, so each time I install it I 'play' the piece. It is like with blues music for instance - you have a score but every time there is different musicians and it will sound different. Even within the technical details of the instruments if I prefix a cord, due to the possible variations in the piece, it will chance.

I see many levels that visitors can enter in the piece depending on interest, age, knowledge..
Yes its very readable and I am very attentive to this; one of my goals is to make my works very musical and appealing. The piece is complex and technical and this is a fact for a lot of my work but I try not to make it the subject. Feedback is an important element; the motion of the objects. In From here to ear I consider the visitor as a signal entering a chamber of reverb, giving off an effect as a kind of echo. The visitors individual walk will influence the birds and every time it happens their response will be different, as they adjust and become familiar with the visitors presence.

I realised quite recently that feedback is one of the main components and patterns of my work, and i can understand all of my pieces from this perspective. That the visitors are signals themselves - and saying this is not about making them objects, but to think of the visitor as part of the piece.

One of the more seductive elements of the installation is that is seems so simple and balanced, can you speak a little about this?
I put a lot of attention into this. I have to restrict the numbers of possibilities of the sounds in the guitars; all the 12 semitones that makes an octave. If not it would be very confusing sounds. So it is not based on randomness, but on unpredictability. I am never thinking that even though I am not choosing the events, I am not composing.

Also it is a musical research for me and I try to overpass my own imagination. I was not a good instrumentalist, and many people in the modernity, who where not good in an academic sense, became very famous; they created their own tools. 

There are many parameters and constrains within the installation and the work becomes a play of constrains. For example I follow the lines of the architecture, I am not going against them. It needs to be natural. Each new architecture, each new site gives me a subject.

I have a good sense of space, always have; I wanted to make music but finally I went to the space. I say that in my family space is represented. My mother was urban sociologist, my brother was a geographer, my father was specialised in the history of gardens, and my grandfather was a landscape painter. My grand-grandfather was a photographer and used to have landscape as his object, so probably there is something in the character of our family. That inspires me a lot. 

The late danish artist Asger Jorn would work on the same piece for more than 30 year (for instance Stalingrad 1957-60, 1967, 1972), from time to time returning to it to make adjustments; do you take corrections with you to new pieces?
Yes, exactly, Bonnard (Pierre, 1867-1947) and even some of the famous impressionists did the same; they went to the Louvre or the Salon des Refusés to correct. Normally with the tradition of the conservators you cannot touch a piece after the work has been finalised, but in a way I can. And when I will be gone then the piece will be fixed, and I will not be here to see it.

Thank you.

Céleste Boursier-Mougenot, From here to ear v. 21, Copenhagen Contemporary

Céleste Boursier-Mougenot: From here to ear v. 21, 2016, (installation view) @ Copenhagen Contemporary. Foto: Anders Sune Berg. Courtesy: Céleste Boursier-Mougenot.

Céleste Boursier-Mougenot, From here to ear v. 21, Copenhagen Contemporary

Céleste Boursier-Mougenot: From here to ear v. 21, 2016, (installation view) @ Copenhagen Contemporary. Foto: Anders Sune Berg. Courtesy: Céleste Boursier-Mougenot.

Céleste Boursier-Mougenot, From here to ear v. 21, Copenhagen Contemporary

Céleste Boursier-Mougenot: From here to ear v. 21, 2016, (installation view) @ Copenhagen Contemporary. Foto: Anders Sune Berg. Courtesy: Céleste Boursier-Mougenot.

Céleste Boursier-Mougenot, From here to ear v. 21, Copenhagen Contemporary

Céleste Boursier-Mougenot: From here to ear v. 21, 2016, (installation view) @ Copenhagen Contemporary. Foto: Anders Sune Berg. Courtesy: Céleste Boursier-Mougenot.

Céleste Boursier-Mougenot, From here to ear v. 21, Copenhagen Contemporary

Céleste Boursier-Mougenot: From here to ear v. 21, 2016, (installation view) @ Copenhagen Contemporary. Foto: Anders Sune Berg. Courtesy: Céleste Boursier-Mougenot.

Céleste Boursier-Mougenot, From here to ear v. 21, Copenhagen Contemporary

Céleste Boursier-Mougenot: From here to ear v. 21, 2016, (installation view) @ Copenhagen Contemporary. Foto: Anders Sune Berg. Courtesy: Céleste Boursier-Mougenot.

Céleste Boursier-Mougenot, From here to ear v. 21, Copenhagen Contemporary

Céleste Boursier-Mougenot: From here to ear v. 21, 2016, (installation view) @ Copenhagen Contemporary. Foto: Anders Sune Berg. Courtesy: Céleste Boursier-Mougenot.

Céleste Boursier-Mougenot, From here to ear v. 21, Copenhagen Contemporary

Céleste Boursier-Mougenot: From here to ear v. 21, 2016, (installation view) @ Copenhagen Contemporary. Foto: Anders Sune Berg. Courtesy: Céleste Boursier-Mougenot.

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