The Prix Ars Electronica Jury in the Computer Animation category quickly agreed: TROPICS by Mathilde Lavenne will be the Golden Nica 2018. “The clean black-and-white visual environment contrasts with the unseen, spoken expression of memories, revealed with the digital distortion connected with the Mexican culture and history”, it says in the jury statement.
Lavenne’s work illuminates the history of a Mexican farm in the tropical zone near Mexico City. Using data scanning and black and white images, the French animation artist uncovers stories and memories that might otherwise have remained invisible. In an interview Mathilde Lavenne spoke with us about the origin of TROPICS and her work in Mexico.
With your animation you’ve shed light on the history of a Mexican farm. How did you discover this place?
Mathilde Lavenne: I have long been interested in the anthropological dimension of the societies I encounter, but also in their relationship to the myths and cosmogony that underlie some of their beliefs. The Casa Proal, which is a Foundation welcoming artists working on so-called “Art & Nature” issues, had chosen me to set up this project in immersion for several months in the tropical zone located several hours from Mexico City. So I did not discover this place “by chance”. Once there, I chose to take an interest in the context and to give importance to what was around me and particularly to the people who came to me. TROPICS does not, strictly speaking, tell the story of a Mexican farm but evokes, among other things, the problems relating to the history of this area colonized by French peasants in the 19th century.
Credit: Robert Bauernhansl
In 2017, you visited the place yourself – which people did you meet there and with what feelings were you confronted?
Mathilde Lavenne: I do not know if the term “visited” is appropriate. I lived several months in this atypical place that was this colonial house located in the center of the banana plantation, an artefact of its time, without windows, without comfort, without limits between the inside and the outside. The tropical sound environment was omnipresent there.
So I had a kind of dream, that of Mexico whose secret force is the one of its landscapes, its volcanoes, its deserts, and its natural and sacred magic. It has confronted the West, which still today exercises its economic and cultural domination over the world. This magical and natural connection to a certain sacred “primitive” is, in my opinion, buried in a memory, that of matter, that of Mexican natural force. It is to this memory that the film refers.
I chose to scan the Mexicans who crossed this zone, with whom I shared my daily life and who lived close to the riverside ecosystem. The people I have recorded have given me extraordinary stories in which a real connection to death, a hint of superstition, an incredible imagination and real experiences of connection with other levels of consciousness mix. They came to me spontaneously after seeing images of the project and, above all, because they had a memory to pass on to me. They have given me very strong feelings and I remain very touched by the trust they have placed in me. I chose to let the people in the area speak and not speak for them.
You speak of TROPICS as a film “of a tropical microcosm that takes us through a form of archaeoastronomy” – what does this term mean?
Mathilde Lavenne: When I arrived in Mexico in this tropical zone, I had the feeling that I had to connect to an older reality, a deeper memory that literally came out of the earth. For example, when we were bathing in the river, we could pick up pre-Columbian statuettes at the bottom of the river bed! So I started visiting the surrounding archaeological sites, the mysterious cities older than the Aztecs. The observation of the sky was very important to pre-Columbian peoples. In the codices written by the Maya, we find the transcription of calendars based on the observation of the stars. Some archaeologists even think that the sites are maps of the sky on the ground! I found the term “archaeoastronmy” in the book Cosmos by the French philosopher Michel Onfray. He uses it to talk about the memories of peoples like those that existed before the Spanish arrived in Mexico. I simply found that the concept corresponded to the energy of the film TROPICS which mixes archaeological and astronomical approaches.
In your project you’ve used a FARO scanner to transfer the landscape data to the digital world. What experiences have you had with this tool?
Mathilde Lavenne: It was the first time I used a Faro scanner. I really wanted to explore a new way of making images. There was also a connection with my earlier work, “Artefact, Digital Necrophony #0”, in which I used data to explore media archaeology and transhumanism. For TROPICS, I set up a partnership with the Anahuac Norte University in Mexico City and the Fablab team that I managed to bring to the site, which was a new experience for them. So I collected the data on the field thanks to them and then processed them myself in my workshop in France.
Can one say that a kind of mental freedom is created when the environment is reduced to a few points?
Mathilde Lavenne: I don’t know if we can talk about “mental freedom”. Personally, I had the feeling that, by showing these clouds of points, we could make visible the invisible structures that constitute us. And at the same time make perceptible the strata of memory: the ones that remain in us in our cells and those outside us that haunt the territories.
Why did you choose the medium of computer animation for TROPICS? What can this narrative form do better than others? And why did you choose a world of black and white?
Mathilde Lavenne: I think there is no better form than another, whether narrative or not. There may be aesthetic tools that make it easier to express certain ideas. The idea of being able to freeze the space in which I moved was quite fascinating for me. Then being able to move around in this frozen space in post-production allowed me to experiment these different strata that I wanted to evoke in the film. I liked the very strong aesthetic shape of the scanner because it was close to engraving and the engraving evoked for me the drawings of medicinal plants brought back by the colonists, one of my first interests on the project. Black and white was also imposed to reinforce the ambiguity of space time and this ghostly presence that the film transmits. The arrival in the banana plantation like a satellite which arises at the beginning of the film convenes a universe of science fiction. I could never have done this with a “classic” image technique.
Mathilde Lavenne (FR), born in 1982, began focusing her artistic approach on emerging technologies and digital tools by writing short films and creating interactive installations in 2011. She received the SCAM’s Pierre Schaeffer Prize in 2014 and the Contemporary Talents Prize from the François Schneider Foundation in 2015. She graduated from Le Fresnoy –Studio national des arts contemporains, with honors. Her short film Focus on Infinity, shot in Norway, was selected in many festivals such as Tampere Film Festival in Finland, Shnit International Shortfilmfestival in Switzerland or International Short Film Week in Regensburg. Her work was shown in France at the Palais de Tokyo, in Italy at the Villa Medici, at MADATAC in Spain. In 2018, she is selected to continue her researches for a year at Casa de Velázquez, Academy of France in Madrid.
Interview conducted by Martin Hieslmair, Ars Electronica.
“TROPICS” by Mathile Lavenne can be seen at the Ars Electronica Festival from September 6 to 10, 2018, as part of the CyberArts exhibition at OK Centrum for Contemporary Art. Mathilde Lavenne will also speak at the Prix Forum I – Computer Animation on Friday, September 7, from 11 AM to 12:30 PM at CENTRAL. Find out more on our website.