Bernard Pourrière: Choreography, Gymnastics, Instrument-building and Art

Rahma Khazam

"Once we have surrendered our senses and nervous systems to the [...] manipulation of those who would try to benefit from taking a lease on our eyes and ears and nerves, we don't really have any rights left," wrote Marshall McLuhan in Understanding Media (1964), anticipating the manipulative potential of today's electronic media. The work of Bernard Pourrière can be read as a response to McLuhan's warning: the French artist's videos and performances valorize human adaptability, perseverance and physical effort, at a time when technology is infiltrating just about every aspect of our lives.

Take the video Equerre (Triangle, 2010), in which the artist is seen bending forward, his head resting on a stool. Using his head as a pivot, he circles the stool with sideways steps, coming to a halt only when overcome by dizziness and fatigue. Perseverance and effort are also to the fore in the video Sans titre (Untitled, 2007), which shows the artist crouching awkwardly beneath a table. With methodical gestures, he moves his right arm in every possible direction in the space bounded by the surface of the table and its supports. In the next shot, the supports have been placed closer together, so that the artist has to adapt his arm movements to an even more confined space. The focus of many of his pieces is on repetitive movement sequences such as these, even though the gestures making up each sequence are never exactly the same, generating different combinations each time they are performed. Like the ten sonnets making up Raymond Queneau's Cent mille milliards de poèmes (A Hundred Thousand Billion Poems,1961), each of whose lines can be combined with any lines from the other nine, they give rise to an infinite number of possible permutations. They also evoke Gilles Deleuze's distinction between 'real' difference and difference understood as variation from a model or norm. Pourrière's gestures exhibit 'real' difference in that they eschew all reference to a norm, none of them being more or less significant than any other. Mundane yet exacting, they put the body's stamina and adaptability to the test.

The sounds punctuating Pourrière's performances can likewise be read as a response to the pervasive presence of electronic media in our lives. As against the passive consumption of audio on television or the internet, they need to be triggered by the artist's gestures, with lateral movements modifying the frequency, and vertical gestures the pitch. The sensors he holds or wears during his performances also react to the speed and regularity of his actions, as do musical instruments: when he tires, the sounds become irregular, and when he stops moving, the sounds also cease. Like the exacting gestures that produce them, the sounds occur in different combinations at each performance, giving rise to an original composition each time.

Pourrière's preoccupation with movement, space and sound harks back, among other influences, to Bruce Nauman's pioneering performance works of the 1960s. In Bouncing in the Corner No. 1 (1968), the American artist repeatedly falls backwards against a corner of the room with a resounding thud and then pushes himself back off the wall, while Pourrière's video Sur le ventre (Face Down, 2010) shows the artist executing a series of jumping push ups, accompanied by a composition of strident electronic sounds. Yet although their actions are similar, there is an ominous undercurrent running through Nauman's work that is absent from Pourrière's pieces. Indeed, some of the French artist's more incongruous postures, as in the case of Equerre, have more of an affinity with such absurd Fluxus performances as Zen for Head (1962): for this work, Nam June Paik traced a line on a piece of paper with his head, having dipped it beforehand in a mixture of tomato juice and ink. Lacking a pre-assigned duration, Paik's performance was an interpretation of La Monte Young's Composition 1960 #10 (1960) consisting of the instruction 'Draw a straight line and follow it'. Pourrière's actions likewise consist in the realization of simple gestures of indeterminate duration, whose length is dependent, in his case, on the onset of exhaustion and fatigue.

The frontier between gymnastics and performance art is another theme that Pourrière addresses in his work, most notably in the video Court-circuit (Short Circuit, 2012). Here, he repeatedly runs and crawls his way - backwards as well as forwards - through an approximately 40m long circuit made up of winding loops of plastic tubing, turning a seemingly banal physical exercise into a gripping performance. Like many of his works, the piece draws not only on performance art and gymnastics but also on choreography, body art, sound art, instrument-building and composition, combining them into a unified whole. It too calls for agility, coordination, balance and flexibility - typically human qualities that deserve recognition in a world increasingly in thrall to electronic media.