Tunnel under the Atlantic

TITLE: Tunnel under the Atlantic
AUTHOR: Maurice Benayoun (music: Martin Matalon)
YEAR: 1995
MEDIUM: virtual reality

Some years after the sound bridge by Bill Fontana, Maurice Benayoun, a Canadian media artist, was taking the opposite metaphor: a “Tunnel under the Atlantic”, so he called his project between the Museum of Contemporary Art Montréal and the Centre Pompidou in Paris. So: not to build a bridge over the Atlantic (by the means of satellites), but to dig a tunnel under the Atlantic (by the means of a telepresence system). Telepresence is in fact the keyword, a concept widely discussed in media and internet art: The linguistic emphasis here does not rely on the link itself (as in the terms telematics or networked performance), neither on the transgressing of a specific space (as in translocality) – but on the presence and interaction of two people or objects at the same time but at a big geographical distance.

Benayoun created an immersive, virtual reality system, where you can virtually dig through the ocean – and where after some time you can meet another real person on the other side of the Atlantic, being as well in a mirrored virtual reality-system. “The route that lies between the two spots is no simulation of the ocean underground, it is a block of symbolic matter in which the geological strata leave the place to iconographic strata. They are layers of pictures taken in the history of the two cultures that everybody can reveal each time they dig. The collective exploration uncovers fragments of rare or familiar pictures, which are opportunities to wake up the collective memory of the participants. Helping us to loitering and talking to people, these remains transform everybody’s digging route into a unique experience, into a personal assemblage made up of sounds and pictures amidst a three dimensional space architectured through their moves. While digging, the visitors can talk with their partners across the Atlantic Ocean. The sounds of their voices are anchored in space and they enable everyone to find out the directions where to meet the other. It takes six days to build and pave the symbolic space before the virutally real meeting of the two-continent diggers.”

The idea of having a tunnel digged by the audience during a time span of six days seems – in an ironic way – quite revealing: it is of course too short to dig a real tunnel – but it also is unreasonably long in the context of a virtual setting, where you can be at the other side in some fractions of a second. So the media installation is questioning the topic of proximity, of closeness produced by our modern telematic or telepresence systems (like the internet, but also the telephone, etc.): it is exactly this experience of proximity which seems central to a virtual space which is in a certain sense detached from a bodily space, from our bodies.