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Trace Online writing centre, The Nottingham Trent University, England, october 2002

Nicolas Clauss: Flying Puppet, The internet as a canvas

You can sense a delightful intelligence operating beneath the surface of the Flying Puppet website, an online gallery of digital hypermedia created by Paris-based painter Nicolas Clauss. Launched on the 24th April 2001, the website is a window into a remarkably imaginative mind. As a painter who “stopped traditional painting to use the internet as a canvas,” Clauss has approached hypermedia as a new kind of art. Although the works are formed from scanned images and objects, video and sound clips, it is the Lingo code beneath the surface that transforms each piece into an interactive performance.
Starting right from the title page, the interface of Flying Puppet is tasteful and welcoming. It offers a menu in French and English, with a gentle reminder that the site is best viewed using a screen resolution of 1024x768. Although you can comfortably view most of the pieces using other screen resolutions, this is one site where it is well worth the extra time it takes to accommodate the artist’s preference. The work requires Flash and Shockwave plug-ins. Also, the interactive pieces presented on Flying Puppet benefit greatly by choosing an evening performance - turn off the room lights, light a candle, and let your monitor become the main stage.

The link from the Flying Puppet index page leads to a menu where you can choose various options, including links to Clauss’s most recent hypermedia work, a biography, installations, paintings, news and press clippings. Among other accomplishments during the past year, his work has been presented online at the Violens Festival Tábor, Czech Republic; during MANIFESTA 4, the European Biennial of Contemporary Art; in the Istanbul Contemporary Art Museum, Net-Art Open Exhibition; at the Propeller Gallery, Toronto, Canada; in the Landscape special edition on; during the Flash Festival France 2002, Pompidou Centre; at the Liberati exhibition, Liverpool Biennial. His work has been featured by and is included in the art base.

For the purposes of this short review, we will focus on a handful of the pieces indicated as interactive, found by following numbered links on the bottom of the menu page. Most integrate music created by composer and filmmaker Jean-Jacques Birgé, as well as works done in collaboration with music composers, algorithmic programmers and authors: François Baxas, Frédéric Durieu, Thomas Le Saulnier, Antoine Schmitt, Bernard Vitet, Denis Colin, and Patricia Dallio. A mouseover of the icon-like images at the top and bottom of each of the three sections containing these pieces reveals a short description of the work.

Starting with a deceptively simple piece called Mechanical Brushes, we immediately experience Clauss’s attention to subtle detail. The menu includes a explanatory note stating that the work is “a provisory goodbye to painting.” It opens with a selection of well-used brushes, palette knives and a single spoon. When a viewer moves their mouse over the image, the objects begin to rotate to a mechanical, gear-like sound. Using code, Clauss has transformed what are probably his very own painting tools into a machine-like object that responds to strokes of the mouse. If you stay with it long enough, other sounds play seemingly at random - something dropping, the buzzing of a fly - possibly sounds he hears in his painting studio. All of this might seem at first glance to be a minor frivolity, but the artist is revealing something very intimate and important to his practice of art. Remember, these works are arranged as if in a gallery, and rarely do people walk into a space, view one work and then leave. The artist assumes you will stay around for a while and experience at least a portion of the entire exhibition.

The mechanical brushes include certain ideas regarding interface that Clauss expands in his later, more complex works - nothing actually starts until the user interacts with the work, sounds and motions accrete, and the mouseovers do not always activate the same results. In another piece, called Cellos, the user’s mouse pointer becomes a dancing stick figure. By using the figure to brush against other figures on the screen, the user initiates not only another dance but individual cello lines for each figure. By setting more than one figure in motion at a time, the user is involved in the actual composition of the work - and all of this mirrors the gestures of the user’s hand on the mouse.

After viewing several of the works in the interactive gallery, the mouse interface becomes quite natural, though there are still surprises. In Legato, the user can have the three figures dance together. In some pieces, you have to click and drag to change the motion or the music. In others, the user can actually loosen their grip on the mouse and roll it gently across the screen. In Dervish Flowers, scene changes are bring about by moving the mouse pointer, in this case several tiny whirling dervishes, off the screen. In Deadfish, the several scenes are separated by a single coda-like scene of dead fish swimming across the screen, accompanied by a haunting voice that sounds very tribal. In One Day On The Air, 16 found audio samples were recorded from radio stations in France on a single day. By rolling the mouse over the image in various directions, or off the screen entirely, the user initiates a kaleidoscope of advancing and receding views, which echo the sound of radio signals tuning in and out of synch.

The interactive pieces in Clauss's Flying Puppet gallery become chronologically more complex, yet retain their deceptive simplicity. You get the feeling of being part of an ever-changing installation. The imagery, ranging from richly ornamental to minimalist pop, is powerful and expressive even without the interactivity - yet the underlying code is inherently part the work, prompting the user to interact. Birgé's music is not mere background, it is integral to each piece. For example - roll your mouse through the image in Deadfish and layer Birgé's musical loops over the droning background sound - compose your own soundtack. It's like watching baroque cinema where you encourage the drama by gesturing with your hand. A wireless mouse is quite effective. Interestingly, on some computers, the Shockwave runs behind other applications - wordprocessor, image-editing software, email, browser. I interacted with the music while writing this paragraph in NotePad.

The one serious criticism of Flying Puppet is that the pieces can seem repetitive, with concepts repeated too often, gestures not explored in full depth. But the same criticism, and much worse, can be directed at many hypermedia works that aspire to the condition of art. If you’re looking for an artist whose work successfully embraces the computer medium - look no further. This is a new form of art, web-delivered hypermedia on the creative edge.

Randy Adams


Email interview:

Adams >> I understand you use Macromedia Director to create your pieces, but often utilize Flash, as well. How long did it take to get comfortable with these tools?

Clauss >> I use Flash mostly for the interface of the site and when I draw dancers, for instance. But I feel much closer to Director which offers a clear code language, allows transparency, and layers inks similar to Photoshop, which you cannot do with Flash - such as lightest, darkest, subtract pin and more. Director is a tool and I have found in it many similarities with the way I used to paint. I mean the possibility to use many layers and to combine them made me comfortable with it when I started. I felt the tool was perfect for me. I first used it about 3 years ago and started doing interesting stuff, at least for me, within the first 3 months. At that time I just used the pre-programmed behaviours and no code at all, except a few Lingo words. Then I met Frederic Durieu who is a great developer, he taught me the basics of code and I became more and more comfortable with it. I learn every day, but I'll never be what you call a programmer. I surely need technical skills to do what I do, but it is not the goal at all.

Adams >> Do you program in Lingo, mostly?

Clauss >> Yes, everything is programmed. I don't use timelines, everything is done vertically - I mean on one frame. I stopped using the pre-programmed behaviours to be able to control everything. I really liked logic and maths when I was a kid so found my way back to that part of myself with the Lingo. But I still have difficulties reading back codes I wrote.

Adams >>You often collaborate. Did you start collaborating with people you already knew? Have you met any collaborators online? Do you meet for discussion, or work through email? Share CD's?

Clauss >> My very first collaboration was with Frédéric Durieu, we created LeCielEstBleu. I met him after I discovered the Alphabet CD-ROM, which I found was the best thing I'd ever seen on a computer. Then I started to work with Jean-Jacques Birgé, who co-authored Alphabet with Durieu. Birgé is a professional sound designer and composer. That was the first time in my life I could work with someone else, which was a real experience because I'm a painter. Since then, Jean-Jacques has co-authored nearly half of the pieces on Flying Puppet. We have other projects together - a large dance and choreography project for the Net, and a piece for the Pianographique site which will be online very soon.

I collaborate with musicians or people I know around me or some who contacted me on the web, like Patricia Dallio. We made le gardien du temps. I always meet collaborators in real life before working together. I need to feel in tune with them, to know them as real people. But I might soon do works with people I've never met before, since they live on other continents - we'll see. Once the contact is done we usually use e-mails and phone to work together, that's the magic of the Net. I start something then send it and go back and forth till we're happy with it. I have to say that I need to work alone mainly - a bad painter habit - but find it very enriching to collaborate with others.

Adams >> Your site contains many works. Originally, did you imagine it as a gallery? Would you call it a gallery, a space?

Clauss >> In 2000, just after we created LeCielEstBleu, I found it quite frustrating not to be independent, to put what I wanted online. So I created my own space, Flying Puppet. I had no idea what it might become. I saw it as a place of experimentation. Call it a gallery or a space, I don't know. At that time, I started surfing the Net and saw a few websites which were working the same way, like Hoogerbrugge's Modern Living for instance.

Adams >> I sense many of your pieces are like installations, and I interact with them through my computer. Your work is very gestural. I move my mouse back and forth, up and down and across, fast or slow. Are these gestures akin to strokes when painting?

Clauss >> I'm glad you mention it. I never thought in those terms, but I like the comparison with painting strokes. Early on, I was fascinated with exploring the gesture of the user. Basically, I was the first spectator, and when I experimented with the sensuality of the mouse movement, I felt that the gestural dimension was something huge for me. A way of putting emotion right into the use of mouse. Interactivity not only allows sounds and pictures, but gesture as well. I think this dimension is too rarely explored in media works.

Adams >> Where do you get your material? I can see drawings and maybe paintings? Where do the fantastical creatures come from?

Clauss >> When I painted I always used found objects in the tradition of Duchamp with ready-mades, Schwitters with collage, or Rauschenberg with "combine paintings". I do the same for my work in Flying Puppet. I also use scanned textures from my drawings or paintings, and the range is now enlarged to sounds and films. Recently, I got a digital camera which allows me to shoot my own film loops.

Adams >> Do you manipulate your images in an image-editing program like Photoshop? Is this where you start?

Clauss >> I use Photoshop a lot, but always working from real material: photos, scans, textures and matters, objects. I have some problem with pure digital pictures. I don't feel related to computer aesthetics. I generally start in Director with rough medias then slowly I re-work them in Photoshop.

Adams >> Have you seen your work on a theatre screen? Have you 'performed' any pieces?

Clauss >> Yes and yes, but I wish I was more solicited to present works in dedicated spaces, to put the user in a more submersive experience. I came to multimedia to explore this possibility, to put the user in a space where the work is larger than him or her. I am happy with the visibility offered with the Net, but I see my work, while doing it, done for installations on large screens in the dark, not on silly small monitors with poor sound and uncontrolled surroundings.

Adams >> I sense a certain playfulness in many of your works. Other ones are, well, almost foreboding.

Clauss >> If you look at the entire site you notice that older works are more based on that playfulness. I was quite influenced by Alphabet, which was conceived for children and presents what the authors called interactive toys. I've made a few works using dancers drawn with Flash, like in Roundabout and, more recently, Legato - which is the most popular work I've made, over 50 000 players. I wish people had same interest in pieces like Before the Night. Legato is cute, but far from me now. I was experimenting with tools and interactivity. But slowly, and especially for a year now, I have returned to things more in tune with my real concerns. Probably more foreboding as you say, more deep I hope, and definitely closer to my pictural style. I'm not saying that I reject older works, but I feel more distant to them. Anyway, what's done is done.

Adams >> How do you approach a new creative work? What comes first, an image, an idea? Could you describe your methods?

Clauss >> Concerning the process of creating new pieces, there's no rules. I can start from an idea as well as from an image. Sometimes I just start from a sound, a film or an object and see what I can do with it, what I see in it. My general approach is still a painter's approach, in the traditional way. I like playing with ideas and concepts but I see them as bonus. I believe in the depth of matter, I believe art - for my concern, I respect other approaches - is something which takes you in another dimension far away from rational ideas, right into emotion, poetry, magic and probably some kind of truth. I like improvised music such as free jazz and find that people expect much more conceptual work from artists than from musicians. I guess my methods are close to improvisation. When it comes to commissioned works, like Five Elsewhere, of course the idea has to come first, which is fine. But I need to keep a space like Flying Puppet to find the freedom for doing anything I want, without having to justify anything.


Randy Adams, writer and visual artist, is Associate Editor at trAce. He has been an active member of the trAce community since 1999, and was the first writer/artist to be awarded a trAce Writer's Studio. He lives on Vancouver Island, off the west coast of Canada.


Flying Puppet:

Jean-Jacques Birgé:

Five Elsewhere:




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