Christian Boltanski’s Chance

Analyzing Interactivity in Christian Boltanski’s Chance by Katina Bitsicas

Christian Boltanski is a French installation artist who was featured in the 2011 Venice Art Biennale with his piece Chance.  For this piece he was awarded the entire French Pavilion to himself, which he filled with a large complex system of metal pipes and a stream of black and white close up portraits of day-old infants from Polish newspapers that were featured in birth announcements.  Further inside the installation in an adjacent room, there is a screen with faces segmented into three sections that rotate like a slot machine.  The viewer is encouraged to participate in this game where they press a large button when the partial faces line up and create a whole face.  There is even an option for viewers who weren’t able to attend the Venice Biennale to go to his website to play the game.  He also has the incentive that if you win he will “send you a surprise personally.”  The irony is, you will never win.  So the viewer takes a chance, unknowingly that it is impossible to win the game.

In Boltanski’s piece, he is analyzing how the world’s population is continually increasing with more and more babies being born each day.  He is also commenting on the amount of humans dying each day as well.  Instead of the birth of a child being celebrated as a unique event, he lumps all of the children together in an assembly line of sorts.  The way he places the births of children next to the deaths of elderly people makes the viewer see the children as a replacement for the elderly.  This would mean that children are a product that will eventually go bad and be replaced again in an endless cycle, similarly to his assembly line device of baby photographs.

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Another element of this piece is that as the photos in the installation are scrolling through the metal structure, an alarm sounds every 10 minutes and the installation halts as one child’s photo is frozen and he is the “chosen one” by chance.  The process then starts over again until another child is selected.  This random selection of a photo is paired with the just as random chance of which viewer is in the room to experience this child’s selection.  So in a sense, Boltanski is creating a random pairing between chosen child and viewer, as if the viewer was meant to witness this child’s selection at that given time.  Marsha Kinder states, “One of the key variables in performative interactivity is pacing.”  Through this repetitive action of the alarm sounding every 10 minutes, the pace of this piece gives the viewer the sense that this work is acting as a mechanized assembly line, viewing the images of the children not as individuals, but as mass produced products.  Even though the database of images is finite, the way the piece is constructed gives the amount of images an infinite feel, making the viewer experience a certain connection with that image, only to have it whisked away in front of them.  The viewer is then able to attempt to recognize that image again in the game, as if they are trying to find their chosen one again.

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When the viewer participates in the game of trying to match the photos of the faces into one whole face, they are essentially trying to find themselves as a whole image within these flashing images.  “This genre encourages users to interweave this personal material into a broader tapestry of historical narrative,” proposes Marsha Kinder.  This personal material exists as information that we collect throughout our lives and concludes with our deaths.  So, us as viewers are incorporating our personal experiences and narratives into this interactive piece as we are making the selection of the faces from the database.  Boltanski creates this database for the piece from which the images come from, and then the software randomly places the photos together in the slot machine format, creating a constantly disjointed image.  Kristen Daly states, “The database implies searching, and Manovich is interested in this as a characteristic of contemporary society.”  This can also be applied to Boltanski’s work where he is using this database of images of children and adults and challenges the viewer to search for the whole face.  In searching for this whole face, the viewer is searching for a distinct identity within these photos, much like humans search for a distinct identity within today’s society.  By not giving the whole image as an option for the participant in the game, Boltanski is inferring that the viewer will not find their identity until death.  Many of the features that Kristen Daly discusses about database cinema describe it as a “puzzle to unlock” or “an interactive game that must be figured out.”  Even though Boltanski’s piece is more of a sculptural and photographic installation and not a cinema production, I still feel that these descriptions can be applied to Chance.

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It is actually quite morbid to make this portion of the artwork into an interactive game.  By encouraging the viewer to “win” he is comparing the generation of life and death with gambling and chance.  Marsha Kinder states, “All of our Labyrinth projects are stochastic systems that generate stories and outcomes through a combination of design, choice and chance.”  Much like the Labyrinth projects, which are constructed from archives of photographs that are paired together to create a story, Chance exists as an archive of children’s photographs that become organized by nothing more than chance.

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Screenshot from Boltanski’s Chance Website

Through my personal interaction with this piece at the Venice Biennale, I felt a sort of responsibility and determined drive to match the photos together in the piece.  I felt that all of the black and white, almost mug-shot-esq photos of the babies and adults seemed helpless without my ability to put them back together.  However, I became frustrated when I was unable to achieve this.  I also tried via the online-portal version of this piece, but was again unsuccessful.  This also made me feel as if I was part of this database of unrecognizable humans, just waiting to become one of the numbers in the every-growing death count.

Word Count: 1,027

Works Cited

Boltanski, Christian.  http://www.boltanski-chance.com/index.html

Daly, Kristen.  “Cinema 3.0:  The Interactive-Image.”  2010. [CP]

Kinder, Marsha.  “Designing a Database Cinema.”  2002. [CP]

Kurcfeld, Michael.  “Chance Encounter.”  2011. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michael-kurcfeld/chance-encounter-christia_b_924000.html

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