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Behind the scenes at the French Pavilion studio installation at Venice Art Biennale 2017

The French Pavilion for the 57th Venice Art Biennale 2017 was transformed into a music performance space and recording studio, in which professional musicians from all over the world played throughout the duration of the exhibition...

The Venice Biennale showcases the best in cutting edge international contemporary art, attracting huge numbers of visitors to its Venetian Arsenale and Giadini locations, running annually from May to November. For both art lovers and music fans alike, one of the highlights of 2017 was the French Pavilion, in the Venetian Giardini. Xavier Veilhan is a Paris-based artist whose work involves sculpture, painting, video, photography and installation. For his Venice immersive installation he blurred the architectural lines initially drawn up for the French Pavilion, designed in 1912 by the Venetian engineer Faust Finzi. 

Doors, walls and ceilings collided to form a landscape of wood and fabrics that revealed two main performance spaces and a fully operational recording studio. This overall artwork evoked not only Kurt Schwitter’s assemblages but also the Dada movement as a whole, including their phonic devices. 

The French Pavilion in the Giardini measures some 400m2 when it is empty and about 360m2 for Veilhan’s design. The internal structure used Okoumé plywood throughout, a relatively simple and cheap material and a light colour. This was important to the design from an acoustic point of view and put visitors at ease, calming the atmosphere, in contrast to a typical white cube space used by art galleries. Studio 1 had a reverb time of 1.5 seconds, and 0.8 seconds in the smaller Studio 2.

Acoustician for the project was Pierre Hugonnet. Veilhan explains the design methods: “Pierre’s approach was, in a quantitative way, based on good knowledge and exact measurements. We based the studio’s design on his recommendations, but we also partly developed some structures that have no acoustic purpose, so it was a combination of trying to avoid making big mistakes and taking little risks for the small areas we submitted to him. We knew we had to treat the floors and to put in certain non-parallel walls, but we were never 100% sure of the design in terms of acoustics. It turns out the result was very satisfying.”

Numerous instruments were integrated into the space, enabling musicians from different horizons and genres (from classical to electronic and from new music compositions to folkloric styles) to play on site, either individually or collaboratively. The presence of sound technicians and an impressive guest list of musicians ensured the possibility to experiment with sound, at the same time as encouraging unexpected collaborations. Musicians were free to decide how they wished to use their time in the pavilion and will retain full ownership of their performances, thus leaving with their own recordings and a compilation of their work with others. 

The centrepiece of the installation was a fully functioning control room with an API 2488 console, Yamaha NS-10 monitors, Pro Tools HD and full outboard, all supplied by British record producer Nigel Godrich, who has supported the project. Choice pieces of kit in the outboard racks included AMS Reverb and Delay units, Korg DC12 delay, MXR Harmoniser, Massenburg and Focusrite EQ as well as a SSL Smart Compressor and four Urei 1176 compressors.   

Veilhan explains how he got Nigel Godrich on board with the project. “I made a portrait of him for a sculpture in my Producers series. Nigel was introduced to me by Nicolas Godin, from the French band Air, who had worked with him on two of their albums. When I began to work on Studio Venezia, Nigel advised me on what to do and what not to do. When he found out I’d be working with a standard type console, he proposed to lend me his own, a 1973 API 2488 analogue mixing desk. The same one on which he recorded Radiohead’s In Rainbows album. He wanted to show us what it was to have a great desk, which was very generous of him. It completely changed the project and turned Studio Venezia into a dream studio.” 

Sound engineers Tibo Javoy and Clement Roussel worked at Studio Venezia using Ableton Live and Pro Tools, depending on the musicians and their habits. Veilhan envisaged his Venice exhibition not as an end in itself but as the next step on an international journey. This travel dynamic corresponds fully to the philosophy behind the project, which functions, in the artist’s own words, as a “musical reflector”. Sensitive to the realities and geographical location of the installation, Xavier Veilhan invited musicians who were the embodiment of their country or city – but also those just passing through on specific dates, and offered them a unique musical experience within the pavilion’s specially-designed space. 

Rather than attending concerts, visitors were instead invited to listen, watch and bear witness to musical creation in progress. One-off actions replaced shows to make way for discovery – as contemplative as it may be – as individuals moved around the installation. Visitors attended these sessions more by accident than through planning, as the French Pavilion’s activities stretch out over the 173 working days of the Biennale, and the list of musicians present was only partially unveiled 
in advance. 

The project’s creator, who was present during the seven months of the Biennale, hopes the pavilion will become a living, breathing space rather than a passive receptacle for predetermined programmes.

Around 100 musicians from various countries came to Venice to work, think and play for audiences of art lovers who were not necessarily there to hear them play. Veilhan comments on some of his personal highlights from the project. 
 “Thurston Moore and Ensemble baBel, the ONCEIM ensemble recording Eliane Radigue’s Occam Océan, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry & Starkee, Enrico Gabrielli, Pierre Rousseau & David Nzeyimana were some of my many outstanding performances and recordings,” he said.

Thanks to invitations from several partners via the Institut Français, Studio Venezia will soon become Studio Buenos Aires then Studio Lisboa. 

The project will be presented in July 2018 at the CCK in Buenos Aires, then in the Autumn at the MAAT, Lisbon’s brand new Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology.