HeHe Works

In his statement “Don't Call it Art” (1) Lev Manovich refutes the idea that digital art belongs to the field of contemporary art, the former being essentially medium based while the later, since the 1960’s, “has become fundamentally a conceptual activity”. “Does it then belong to ‘design’?”, Manovich asks. Obviously not: “Al-though some designers today indeed focus their energy on systematically investi-gating new representational and communication possibilities of digital media, these designers represent a very small percentage of the overall design field. A typical designer simply takes the client's brief and does something using already established conventions, techniques, and iconography. Thus to identify ‘digital art’ with design is to wrongly assume that the contemporary design field as a whole is devoted to ‘basic research’ rather than ‘application’.” Is this true? Or could it be that there is somewhere a territory that serves as a common ground for both de-signers and artists? Helen Evans et Heiko Hansen, the HeHe duo, could very well be among the representatives of this missing link, left aside by Manovich’s far too formalist approach.

They have developed a concept of Cultural Reverse Engineering, that raises politi-cal, economical and sociological questions: to study a device or a software in or-der to modify its initial function is a way of re-appropriating the technology, in a world where most of us have no idea of the way everyday objects actually work nor how their cultural position has changed over time. The workshops they orga-nize to “teach basic of  DIY technologies, to students, artists and designers”, can be seen as a concrete application of that concept. HeHe is clearly related to the Lo Fi philosophy (and it happens to be the title of one of their works), with its playful, yet serious, issues.

In one of their early works, Optiball (1999), they transform an everyday object – in this case, a translucent orthopedic sitting ball – into an reactive light installa-tion. “The work aims to use digital compass readings to relate our natural orien-tation senses to a dynamic spacial situation”. Or, as phrased in the European Art Media Festival catalogue: “Optiballs can be seen as a consequent development of office health balls in the last ten years…”, as part of an alternative definition of user-friendly, working environments. Another example of this will for reshaping common spaces is Brix (2001-2006), “a wall of bricks that sees what is happening in front of it”: the image of the passer-by is captured and reflected onto the sur-face, thus changing constantly the look of the wall. “Brix, prefigures a new form of palimpsestual architecture” – but it also raises questions on works of art seen as decoration. Light Brix (2001-2006) for instance, a “modular light system for architecture, which reacts to the change in electromagnetic fields generated by touch”, can be seen at the same time as a design and an installation: a design, as the individual units can be assembled into a light architecture and an installation, because of its digital ephemeral content (one can leave a “mark” on the light wall) and material form (the shells are made of thin plastic “take away” salad boxes and metal textile).

Their interest for public space and the ecology of urban planning led Helen and Heiko to conceive works for public spaces – among which Grandes Lignes is the latest example. An earlier intervention was Waitingsignals (2000), sixteen light tubes reacting to the movements of the passerby at a bus stop. But more spec-tacular is Lo Fi (2003), that references 80’s hi-fi systems with its simplified graphic equalizer. Transforming music into light pulses, the  installation is plugged into the sound system of a concert room and appears gradually on the in the same building’s facade. Another example is Bruit Rose / Pink Noise (2004), an advertising light box which reacts to the ambient sound on the street as well as the movement of the people passing by. Both Lo Fi and Pink Noise raise questions about nuisance that is specific to city living : noise. But Pink Noise is also specific in the sense that it turns a piece of urban furniture inside out – in this case, a commercial billboard. This form of re-appropriation finds another expression in the project Train, an alternative means of public transportation first conceived for the Paris railway track “La Petite Ceinture”, which stopped its service in 1934. Train has been iterated in several versions and various places, each time adapting itself to an existing tramway or railroad track.
Another form of nuisance is, of course, air pollution. At the Vanessa Quang Gal-lery in Paris, HeHe showed their Smoking Lamp (2005), that uses smoke detec-tors to translate the progressive saturation of the room by cigarette smoke into colour and sound – and smokers are common at art gallery openings. The work underlines, in a humoristic way, the hypocrisy that leads to the banishment of smokers from all public places, whilst the atmospheric pollution is getting worse every day: the ambitious project Nuage vert (in progress for 2008) uses a laser beam to light up the smoke produced by a public waste incinerator; utimately, it analyzes the amount of waste being burnt: as more or less waste is recycled, the colour of the laser changes from green to red, making the impact on the air qual-ity viewable by everybody. Champs d’ozone, HeHe’s latest project for the Air de Paris exhibition (Paris, Centre Pompidou, April-August 2007) also refers to air bourne pollution, by focusing on one of its easy-to-measure but invisible constitu-ents, ozone. In this installation, the picture of the Paris landscape provided by HeHe changes constantly, according to the information sent by an air quality monitoring station (from Airparif). Like in Bruit rose, Helen and Heiko use techno-logical infrastructures that are existing and available (even if, unlike the advertis-ing panel, ozone sensors are kept hidden), and divert them from their original purpose. Both works refer to the love/hate relationship that often exists between a city and its inhabitants. As Augustin Berque puts it: “Le paysage n’est pas l’environnement lui-même, mais une certaine relation, esthétique en l’occurrence, que nous avons avec lui. La naissance du paysage n’est autre que la naissance de ce type de relation à l’environnement” (2): Champ d’ozone could be seen as a reminder that, in the 21st century, the impact of man on nature has completely changed the colour and essence of this relationship.

Pierre-Yves Desaive
Juin 2007

1)  http://www.manovich.net/
2)  “ The landscape is not the environment itself, but a particular relation, an aesthetic event which we have with it. The birth of the landscape is none other than the birth of this type of relation to the environment. ”
Augustin Berque, Le principe de Zong Bing – paysage et dépassement de la modernité, unpublished version (august 2001) from the essay Landscape and the overcoming of modernity, presented at the  International Geographic Union, Seoul, 14-1_ august 2000