A conversation with June Balthazard
June Balthazard (France, 1991) is a French filmmaker and artist. Her films oscillate between reality, shown as a documentary, and a world far removed from reality. In this way the work takes on a nature of magical realism.
MASS is a sculptural and video installation realized in 2020 by June Balthazard and Pierre Pauze at the Taipei Biennale in collaboration with Futur Antérieur Production, Hermès Horloger and the Taipei Biennial, Drac Nouvelle-Aquitaine, Les modillons, Le Fresnoy and the SCAM.
The video installation Mass is based on the legendary substance Æther. This original matter has served as a backcloth for many creation myths, before finding an echo in the recent discoveries of quantum physics.
June Balthazard and Pierre Pauze weave a story, between reality and science fiction, in which scientists from the Cern laboratory discuss the existence of an original and omnipresent substance. In a context of ecological upheaval, this fabric of the universe appears as the link that connects humans to nature.
The sculptural installation is closely related to the video installation and it gives concreteness to the invisible substance. The entire sculpture seems to be a surreal world where the protagonists of the video live.
June Balthazard and Pierre Pauze, MASS 2020. © Courtesy of the artists and Taipei Fine Arts Museum.
2-channel video, wood, foam, Polychoc, polyester resin, water paint, plaster, PMMA laminated, synthetic plants, bumper, steel, stage light, light stand, dimensions variable. This work was originally commissioned by Hermès Horloger, Bienne, Switzerland.
Chambre Fluide: Topics such as Higgs boson and ether seem to be the core of your work “MASS”.
You said that everything regarding the Higgs boson, such as its nature between physical and metaphysical, its omnipresence and divine essence constitute a fascinating imaginary.
How did you decide to deal with this invisible substance and to investigate it?
June Balthazard: The project was born after a long process. I think the fact that we were born in the early 1990s played a role since our generation has always been aware of the current ecological crisis. It has been an integral part of the way we have built ourselves.
By working on this project, we asked ourselves a lot of questions about how the ecological rhetoric, embedded into our lives, has been able to change the way we think about the world, particularly through the alerts of the scientific community.
Ecology raises profound questions. It questions the place of human beings in nature.
For many philosophers, including Bruno Latour and Isabelle Stengers, keeping nature out of culture makes no longer sense today.
We are aware of the porosity and interdependent relationships between humans and nature, in the light of a world where our destiny is undoubtedly intrinsic to it.
This continuity between man and nature has long been formulated and has taken shape in a mysterious substance. This essence has been depicted in many creation myths. This fabric of the universe, called with several names through ages, including that of ether, is a primordial matter that would permeate and unify everything.
Men have competed to give a name to this sign. The ether is originally a Greek deity, born of Darkness and Night and then it engendered the Earth. More cautious spirits called it the Being or the Breath. In the wake of the monotheistic religions, matter was baptized The Substance of God. For others it is still the vibration of the primordial Om, a pulsation that spreads throughout the universe.
In any case, the ubiquitous substance would ensure a unifying role. In this way, we would no longer be a mere aggregate of atoms, born of a chance encounter of particles in the void, but a whole organized and solidarized by a breath, by a sort of matrix mass from which all the elements of nature would come from. Ether gives the image of a self-organized world, of a cosmos.
Our work is nourished as much as by these founding myths as by the most recent scientific studies, since one of the major discoveries of this century curiously evokes the properties of ether. I am talking about the Higgs field, which has been brought to light in 2012. This field, which developed and filled the universe at its origin, is what gives substance to matter.
I think that the notion of ether can resonate today, beyond the topicality of this scientific discovery. The idea of a connection between the earth, men and sky, speaks for itself in the context we live in. In the MASS installation, we wanted to give a presence to this mysterious substance, putting us in search of an invisible point, since, according to Heraclitus: "Nature likes to hide".
June Balthazard and Pierre Pauze, MASS (still), 2020. © Courtesy of the artists.
CF: The main subject of Taipei Biennale is ecology, the relationship between man and nature.
You stated that the ether, invisible and substantial material, links everything to the whole. So, mankind is connected to earth too.
Do you think that your work could affect mankind and its mindset and behaviour, solving and overcoming a series of ecological problems?
JB: No, I don't think so. I think that my approach is more imaginative than militant. In the MASS installation, a narrative film dialogues with a sculpture, physically present and filmed. If the people and the scientific facts are real in the narrative film, we have imagined a world in which the disaster, announced long ago, has arrived.
In this narrative of anticipation, humanity, plunged in a long night, faces an unprecedented crisis. The protagonists are literally suspended, waiting for dawn. This stretched time allows them to ask themselves more existential questions. Then they wonder about a vibratory substance, present in myths, which would be the connection between them and nature.
In the sculptural part, inspired by the stages of a creation myth, we deliver our version of a cosmos. The vocabulary of sculpture is that one of a model or of a scenery, which imitates elements of nature. This imaginary landscape can evoke pieces of planets. Then we worked in an empirical way, filming the sculpture as a laboratory.
In particular, we filmed machines nested inside the sculpture, which animate matter thanks to vibrations. Through this sensory and plastic work, we wanted to give a presence to the mysterious vibratory substance. The two films, side by side, put in co-presence the two characters, who seek this substance that seems to take shape.
Finally, I explore symbolic, fictional and real worlds, drawing on ancient sources and the most up-to-date scientific discoveries.
I try to open up fields where everyone can experiment and project himself into a past, a present and a future, in a kind of retro archaeology of the future. Moreover, the sculpture is exposed inactive, as a piece of archaeology or the trace of a disappeared world.
CF: In the video shown at the Biennale, there is a dialogue, a debate between a physicist and an astrophysicist.
What would you like to bring out and highlight through this conversation?
JB: This scene is the highlight of the project. We imagined that in this troubled context, some scientists would have retreated to caves to meditate on nature and cosmos. The cave is a place of revelation in many traditions. Conversation takes place in this symbolic place, in the light of a fire. We wanted the project to escape from rationality, at times to let it go to myths and beliefs.
The discussion took place between Chiara Mariotti, particle physicist, and Michel Mayor, the latest Nobel Prize winner in astrophysics. Chiara and Michel played the game of fiction, projecting themselves into a world where an unexplained phenomenon occurred and left the scientific community in limbo. From this point, the work of writing the scenes was quite organic.
We decided together that their discussion would focus on what men do not understand about nature. I was very touched by the modesty of Chiara and Michel. These leading figures in physics have contributed to two major discoveries: the Higgs Boson and exoplanets. But they offered to talk about what they don’t understand, imagining that the outcome of such a crisis would be in these blind spots of science.
The conversation leads them into the strangest thing about modern physics: the substance of emptiness. We have recently learned that the vacuum is filled with invisible components of the universe, which are partly undetectable to us. Then can we still speak of vacuum? The field of Higgs emerges from emptiness, an entire universe discreetly intertwined in ours that is teeming with ephemeral particles in perpetual creation and dissolution.We are immersed in this evanescent substance, which is at the edge of matter.
Once again, a connection can be made with ether, which is also at the edge of matter. Ether is a meeting point between the matter and the divine, the supernatural. This imaginary has inspired us a lot in our narrative and formal choices. We wanted this surreal touch to pass through the whole installation. In the sculptural part, for example, the matter seems to move in a supernatural way, without synthetic special effects. The entire processes are directly made at the same time of the shooting.
June Balthazard and Pierre Pauze, MASS (still), 2020. © Courtesy of the artists.
CF: While making this piece of art, you had the chance to explore and research thoroughly this scientific field by meeting and discussing with great scientists.
Did you develop your own concept of vacuum?
JB: I think that emptiness has a complex physical substance, as described in science and in certain spiritualities. But while carrying on the project, I became aware of this! Thanks to the register of anticipation, the project amplifies phenomena that are expressed in a more unconscious way in the contemporary world.
For example, I wouldn't necessarily give the vacuum the name of ether. What is interesting with this notion, which is finally not well known, is that it materialises a way of seeing the world. The discourse on the continuity between humans and nature has
become banal in the context we live in. But this is far from having always been the case.
The project speaks as much about this shift in mentality as about the ether itself.
Even though the MASS installation is anchored in a serious crisis, there is a form of optimism that emerges from it. We have filmed people who, faced with a world that has become incomprehensible, try to fill the void, to repair a break by seeking instead the link, the continuity. We saw it as an attempt to re-enchant the world, by perceiving parts of mystery in this world. This is not anecdotal because we are certainly less destructive with what we hold sacred.