Philomene Longpre

FORMICA (V1. 2003, V.2 2007) Philomène Longpré. LIFE Museum, Saint-Nazaire, 2010, Photo credit: LIFE


Short Description

Formica V.2  is an art installation, which received the 2008 Octas award for the Digital Art Award innovativeness, presents a strong metallic frame that houses a delicate video membrane consisting of a series of horizontal elastic slats. The visitors transform and trigger links with the character as infrared sensors pick up their movements and ultrasonic sensors detect their locations. According to Michel Hellman, “As soon as we enter the dark chamber, we are automatically captivated.”1 He comments that the piece places the visitors in the position of being an important element of the system. In his review, he wrote: “Longpré was able to give life to a virtual character. In doing so, it reversed the codes. Visitors find themselves in an ambiguous position, as they are not only spectators but also participants to the final outcome of the work.”1 Marilyse Hamelin described that this system “succeeded because the visitors are first completely assailed by emotions when encountering Formica.” 2 This robotic structure explores the thematic of tension, and the red character expresses a series of emotions in relation to the selected subject. These interactions are visually expressed on the membrane as the projected video shows a series of lines that like firing neurons are weaving a tapestry of connections.

Formica seems to notice, feel, and learn as it adjusts to the shifting strata of social interactions.
Isa Tousignant described Formica as follows: “The figure becomes so overwhelmed by them that she literally splits herself – overwhelmed by us, in fact, since we, the viewers, are responsible for unleashing the whole process.” 3

This system was presented during the BIAN International Digital Art Biennale of Montreal, at C-2 MTL (2012), at the Collider Electronic Arts Festival in Akron, Ohio, United States of America (USA, 2011), at the Nouveaux Monstres at Life Museum in Saint-Nazaire, France (2010), and during the LILLE 3000 Festival in Lille, France (2010). It was also exhibited at the Parisian Laundry Gallery in Montreal (2007).

1. Michel Hellman, “Culture: Interaction virtuelle,“ Le Devoir, Montreal, February 12, 2007.
2. Marilyse Hamelin, “Formica vous observe! Ou est-ce l’inverse?,” La Voix Pop., Montreal, Feb., 2007.
3. Isa Tousignant,“Philomène Longpré rocks my world: Ooh mama,“Hour, Montreal, February 15, 2007.


Text of Exhibition

What binds us
by Julie Bélisle

Projected, the video image has something immaterial and impalpable about it, as if it were completely detached from the physical world. Still, its capacity to mold itself to every surface it encounters, to diffract against every medium placed in its path, to become one with every form of matter, reveals its vast potential for adherence to the real. The foregoing represents a host of possibilities that point to the malleability of the video image and indicates the extent to which each one is first and foremost a material thing, existing only through the support the artist chooses to provide.

Philomène Longpré strives, among other things, to bring the image back into the concrete context of the world. Her work is constructed around a desire to establish communication between the physical world and the virtual world through ingenious installations that play with new technologies in ways that turn them to her own advantage. Despite the announcement, made by a number of theoreticians, that screens are slated to disappear or at least become invisible, it is by foregrounding screens that the artist gives weight to her images. I refer here not to the kinds of screens that have proliferated in our day-to-day environment — to those on laptop computers, cell phones, electronic agendas, public display boards, and the like. On the contrary, the artist’s kinetic screens overshadow us with their imposing scale and use of unusual materials to play with our perceptual apparatus. Suspended structures hover over us with all their weight, while their movements sometimes create the illusion of evicting the characters that inhabit them. For Longpré’s screens are inhabited. In them, someone lies in wait for us, for information supplied by our very presence and transmitted via motion detectors as they pick up our movements.

The artist works in that zone where the screen and the projected image come into contact, employing technological devices that reconstitute the image by literally becoming a piece with it. Apart from the surfaces that Longpré invents, the influence of experimental film is pervasive in her visual language. Her references to the film genre are revealed by the same disorientation of our customary practices, a certain disruption of narration, and an exploration of psychological states. Each time we have to try to find our point of entry into her images; thus interactivity plays a key role in her installations. Our presence is what initially draws us into them, as we proceed, through our movements, to modify the ways in which the images are projected. Longpré’s moving images are, for the most part, spatial frameworks for fictionalized narratives that evoke different worlds, each belonging to virtual characters. In these pieces, technology serves as a linking device: the artist combines images, colors, and sounds, connecting them to infrared sensors, robotic screens, and computer programs that, taken together, constitute an imaginary space attached to the physical space. The creation of characters is a constant feature of Longprés’s recent work. Key figures in her video systems, adopt human forms and strive to establish communication with their environment. Taking her observations of daily interactions as her point of departure, the artist uses personification to embody the ideas she takes from them.

Formica anthropomorphizes human attachment, that is, our capacity to create connections with others, links that exist by virtue of our impulses, our communities, and our involvements. Formica, which means “ant” in Latin (the French word is fourmi) deals in fact with the web of connections that can be woven between a virtual character and the public. A character waits for an interlocutor and is activated whenever someone steps into its space. It is draped from head to toe in a red outfit, the top of which extends beyond the upper edge of the image, giving the impression that the androgynous stooge is held in place by a filament leading into an adjoining room. But if inference plays a major role in our apprehension of others, what signs can we derive from a figure who stands before us without appearing to belong to any particular culture?

Let us note first of all what it does: it observes us, sizes us up in a manner somewhat akin to the way in which we appear to examine it. Aware of our movements, it seems to see us advance. Mutual observation comes into play and a first connection is established as we venture to draw near. At this point a process is activated, one that increases the appearances of links represented by red filaments and strips of fabric that stretch Formica and disturb its movements. The work is gradually imprisoned by this accumulation of physical connections, generating reactions in the robotic screen that seems to contain it. A system of pistons stretches the 16 horizontal plastic strips of which the screen is composed. The spaces between the strips set off the character more sharply, while a cross-hatched, coloured shadow forms on the wall. The stretching of the screen stops once most of the connections have been severed. The structure then springs back to its original shape and Formica looks around, as it were, for the attachments that had held it, as if suddenly nostalgic for what it has just lost. A pile of red filaments lies at the figure’s feet, like a pool of colour.

If, on the other hand, no visitors make their way into the space of the interactive video, none of the foregoing events take place. There is no movement, no receptive action. But the moment we arrive everything kicks into gear, launching a four-phase cycle through which the character unfailingly makes its way. It is as if we were in the presence of hyperimages, of interconnected strips between whose interstices we could, as it were, navigate. Then the video sequences follow one upon the other, the ductile screen tests the limits of the image, and a sonorous tension resounds in the space. Longpré’s images take us into a fictional world, but the whole range of artifice with which she surrounds us stems from reality itself, particularly from the whole range of sounds picked up by sensors. The same holds for the noise of the valve system that activates the screen and gives us the impression that we can hear the image breathing.

The installation brings us up against the action our movements produce in the system. Do we really exert some sort of control over the image? Or are we not Formica’s puppets? For, in the end, the interactive video invites our participation only to set in motion an apparatus that has been preprogrammed by the artist. Perhaps the work juxtaposes layers of possibility associated with our predictability, with a circuit it determines and on which we in turn can act. We believe that we are seeing the direct result of our interaction on the visual object and that this interaction steers the computer program. Let us say, finally, that the question of the relationship to the work of art – a relation with the visitor, to be sure, but also one with reality – is dealt with in a veiled manner in this installation. Formica activates a system of non-discursive communication and uses paralanguage with its devices and its actions to draw closer to us. In the sequential unfolding of the piece, a visual connection is established with the character. This is then multiplied, in the process reminding us, perhaps, that what binds us to people and things is rarely something contained or mastered. Joining with others, uniting, coming together, being held in a web of connections — these shape us in as many different ways, probably, as the filaments and pieces of fabric transform Formica.

1 Propos qu’Olivier Asselin rapporte et commente dans « Écrans numériques », Parachute ,
no 113(Janvier -Février -Mars), p. 6 -11.

Julie Bélisle | Julie Bélisle holds a master’s degree in museology and works at the Galerie de l’UQAM. She is currently pursuing a doctorate in art history, which deals with the processes of collecting and accumulating in contemporary art. In addition to publishing articles on artistic practice in urban environments, she has curated a variety of exhibitions focusing on cultural heritage issues and is involved in research projects on the ways in which material culture is bound up with memory.


FORMICA — Interactive Robotic Art Installation
(Immersive environment; robotic sculpture; interactive narrative; sensing and control system; user interface design;
large scale projection; tangible interfaces; responsive video membrane;
virtual character; performance; and digital sound)

Photo library (click to expand)