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Issue 36

Frank Luesing and Paul O'Neill

BY Martin Pesch, translated by Michael Robinson in Reviews | 10 SEP 97

Bourges is a very beautiful city in central France. Its somewhat over-large cathedral looms powerfully over the old town. The modern cultural buildings that Bourges has acquired from a caring central state do little to detract from this image. Both the Mediatheque and the Maison de la Culture are well-equipped, multi-functional buildings. The Bandits-Mages Festival, which takes place in May each year, is part of the cultural euphoria that is so typical of Bourges. Five years-old, it is devoted to video and multi-media art. It began modestly as an initiative by students from the local art college, but in 1997 it reached its first pinnacle of international ambition: a jam-packed film programme, platform discussions, video installations in the town and the obligatory parties every night.

Like most festivals of this kind, Bandits-Mages includes events that are part of the official programme, but which examine the nature of festivals as institutions. Usually this involves questioning the way in which a festival throws entirely disparate works together, arranges them in time sequences and forces them to be associated with certain venues. In the best cases, it will produce something resembling communication between participants in the festival, and ideally even between artists and the public. In Bourges, Frank Luesing and Paul O'Neill successfully achieved this by very simple means. Their contribution to the festival was entitled I like reviewing in my car, It's not much but we get far (1997). They hired a car and invited visitors could take a trip in the car throughout the four days of the festival. The artists sat in front, with a maximum of two passengers in the back. The journey always started and finished in the inner courtyard of the art college, but the passengers were required to fix the route and the duration of the journey, answering the question of whether to turn left or right at every junction. A video camera installed behind the windscreen could also be switched on and off at the passengers' request, its microphone picking up the music from the tape deck (passengers had to bring a cassette with their favourite in-car music) and the occupants' conversation. At the end of the journey a form had to be filled in on which the names of the passengers, the titles of the music, the route (this produced attractive-sounding sets of French street names) and a short assessment of the journey were entered. Then a Polaroid photograph of the passengers standing in front of the car was stuck to the form.

The second piece of the work comprised a simple video installation. Behind the glazed entrance to the Maison de la Culture was a video monitor facing outwards showing the video clips that the passengers' choices and conversation had produced. An external loudspeaker played the sound track from the clips (the music, the conversations, the noises heard on the journey). The films were screened after dark and you could see them flickering and hear their soundtrack from a distance. When you got closer you could study the filled-in questionnaires, which were placed by the monitor. In this way, according to your knowledge of music or local geography, it was possible to connect the people in the photographs with the clips they had filmed. But this was not the only attraction. The films being shown had one strange characteristic. The journeys were actually quite monotonous: the camera always showed the same streets, junctions and facades - everyday pictorial material. But in conjunction with the recorded music they acquired a new effect, which was anything but mundane. For example, when accompanied by a Mahler Adagio the scenes in the old town acquired a dramatic and Western atmosphere; a speedy trip through the green surrounding countryside became a stimulating experience when linked with Kruder & Dorfmeister's soft drum'n'bass mix.

There were other striking aspects. The images produced by the fixed camera from the travelling car were reminiscent of James Stewart's car searches through San Francisco in Hitchcock's Vertigo. Passers-by filmed by chance on pavements or crossing the road thus became leading actors, objects of a deliberate search. This was further reinforced by the conversations in the car, which were often indistinct. It was impossible for the viewer to avoid the responsibility of charging the randomly filmed images with significance. You saw and heard a conglomerate of visual and audio material that had been compiled by chance, but was still staged to an extent: as the product of artistic work with no particular result in mind. The work of Luesing and O'Neill, artists from Hamburg and Dublin who met while on a scholarship to Poland, was aimed particularly at an entirely new approach to the car, something that Luesing, as a member of the Hamburg Autogruppo art project, had been pursuing for some time. As the means of transport to blame for dying forests and constantly rising traffic accident fatality figures, the attractiveness of the car can only be explained by the psychology that is inherent in it. This notion was developed in Bourges and resulted in the achievement of some extraordinary work.