PARIS — The Fondation Cartier pour l’Art Contemporain in Paris commemorates its 30th anniversary with “Musings on a Glass Box,” a two-part immersive installation by controversial New York design studio Diller Scofidio + Renfro that nearly empties the museum’s ground floor. This huge emptiness, besides signifying a power and grandeur seen before in art museums in Paris, places the Jean Nouvel building — its glass walls, mechanical systems, and acoustics — under closer scrutiny. For its third installation at Fondation Cartier, Diller Scofidio + Renfro plays with the architecture of the building, incorporating a very effective integral sound art component by composer David Lang that offers the most rewarding sensual element to the installation.
Visually, “Musings on a Glass box” looks kind of dumb in its bland emptiness, but it is actually technologically sophisticated, particularly when one learns of the robotics that engineer Marty Chafkin developed for it. The high ceilings and transparent walls of the Fondation Cartier building, made from the best glass technology of the 1990s, are used here as perverse starting points to goof on one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s highest goals: to connect the interior to the exterior world. Diller Scofidio + Renfro takes that ambition to an extreme and presents us with the cliché of a leaky roof when the rain drips in. This is the gag of the left half of the show, where one enters the theatrical setting of a cold, cavernous empty space to encounter only a single red plastic bucket on wheels. The windows have been blurred over with some sort of translucent material. Soon, the bucket begins slowly moving about the space — and suddenly stops — so as to catch a naughty leak from the ceiling. Only three drips drop into the bucket before it starts to move around again. The bucket moves apparently on its own and in random directions, before precisely halting in position to receive three drops more, and so on, elsewhere.
However, in many ways it is the sound of the installation that rewards the visit, by delighting a focused mind with a textured symphony. The drop of water hitting the half-filled bucket below sets off an audio response that amplifies and expands into a mammoth reverberating noise that includes hints of a human chorus, creating one huge hum that makes for a meditative experience.
The use of water, sound, sensors, robotics, and remote communications — achieved through Jody Elff’s real-time sound processing program — recalls Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s extraordinary creation of an artificial cloud jutting out onto Lake Neuchâtel at Yverdon-les-Bains, The Blur Building. It, too, had a powerful and restless sound environment, there designed by Christian Marclay.
The second half of the installation, located on the right side of the building, consists of an immense jumbo-tron that looms from the ceiling close to the ground. One slithers under the screen by use of little black go-carts into a literally top-down architectural folly that results in a rather oppressive (but fun) experience.
The Fondation Cartier’s two ground galleries have been hooked up to interconnect in a feedback loop. As the drops of water fall into the bucket, they create light changes that are then captured in real time by a tiny camera (installed inside the bucket) and are transmitted and amplified onto a screen in the right gallery. It’s a neat idea, but, visually, a big come down. All that potential visual impact of the suspended huge screen seems wasted on blurry and shaky abstract images that amount to almost nothing of visual interest. I assume that we are supposed to be satisfied with the grand scale of it all, as the great screen hovers over us like a great truth that cannot be questioned, but only tinkered with.
This out-of-whack sensual link between the two galleries reveals and rectifies the imbalances and incongruities between our visual perception of the outer world as captured by technology and our inner, less palpable audio experiences. “Musings on a Glass Box” suggests for architecture a new goal for connecting interior to exterior by designing spaces that integrate the human body. For Diller Scofidio + Renfro, that means spaces laced with intelligent computer-robotics run by an algorithmic code which connects our experiences of sight and sound into one seamless digital and spatial experience. As such, “Musings on a Glass Box” appears to be a rather modern musing on the tension between our personal, inner experiences and the dominant visual spectacle of architecture, a cogent apprehension that yields fantastic intellectual aftermaths.
Many intelligent and visceral questions and obsessions are raised in this show concerning interfaces between body/mind/machine/structure. For example, the circulation of data in this in-and-out playhouse suggested to me that one challenge of our computer era, with its round-the-clock time zone, is in dealing with a shift away from sensual vision towards mechanical vision. This thought, in turn, encouraged me to enjoy the rest of the day outdoors.