PARIS — Digitally literate artists have been acutely aware of how state power has been shifting from the actual to the virtual, at least since Ars Electronica’s prescient art and technology show InfoWar in 1998. With this theme very much in mind, I went to see Laurent Grasso’s elegant short film “Elysée” (2016) at Galerie Perrotin’s Impasse Saint Claude space on the same day that US intelligence agencies stated with “high confidence” that, in order to aid the pompous and acrimonious Donald Trump to power, the Russian military intelligence hacking entities Guccifer 2.0 and DCLeaks.com relayed to Wikileaks data stolen from prominent Democrats. “Elysée” tilts consideration away from networked, virtual power and toward the actual (if dazzling) decorum of the local, material surfaces of a power room. Consequently, the film is something of a passé portrait of the aesthetics of state power within our current information age.
This one-week projection of “Elysée” at Galerie Perrotin follows its premiering in Hong Kong, followed by projections in Seoul and in Ajaccio, where it was part of Grasso’s Paramuseum exhibition at the Palais Fesch. Produced at the invitation of the Archives Nationales for the exhibition Le Secret de l’Etat (“The Secret of the State”), this slick 16-minute short, shot by a professional film crew, is the first of a series that Grasso hopes to devote to places of power. Here, it is bracketed by two gold leaf bas-relief wood pieces, “Anechoic Wall” (2016), and two oil and palladium leaf on wood paintings titled “Studies into the Past” (2016), which were hung as if to guard the projection room entrance.
Grasso received special authorization for the first time to shoot 35mm film (subsequently digitized for DVD projection) in the Salon Doré (or Golden Room), the office of the President of France at the Élysée Palace. The Salon Doré is named after the gold network of gilt filigree found on its walls, doors, tables, and chairs. The name Élysée derives from the Elysian Fields, the place of the blessed dead in Greek myth. The palace was built in 1722 by the architect Armand-Claude Mollet and for a time was the residence of the Marquise de Pompadour, whose opponents showed their distaste for her by hanging signs on the gates reading “Home of the King’s whore.” Later, the visionary neoclassical architect Étienne-Louis Boullée (best known for his utopian project of 1784, “Cenotaph for Sir Isaac Newton”) made substantial alterations to the Palace. Most presidents of the French Republic (including the current Socialist president, François Hollande, who allowed Grasso to film there) have used the Salon Doré as their main office. Two things from Hollande’s array of personal office objects, as captured in “Elysée,” jumped out at me: his book of Charlie Hebdo cartoons and his collection of toy cars.
“Elysée” is a stunning, uneventful, and leisurely film that offers an apolitical peek into this room of power. The film’s non-deconstructive technique consists of a telescoping slow glide (evoking machine vision) with minimal editing and cross fading. The viewer is plunged directly into the room, gliding slowly by the inert human guards that stand in the room, almost object-like; the camera pans slowly over them and onto the splendid surfaces of the Salon Doré, relishing in the walls’, ceiling’s, furnishings’, and chandeliers’ lush detailing. It makes for a lulling feast of eye candy, an effectual fusion of golden intensity. The lens almost licks the golden surfaces in a disembodied way that transmits a feeling of displacement.
We float, as if in virtual reality, through an investigation of the room’s rich contours to a seductive soundtrack created by Nicolas Godin of the excellent electronica music group Air. Taken together, the camera’s floating pans and the droning music’s synthetic, choir-like sounds (the only audio in the film) conjure a transcendent atmosphere that reinforces emotional associations about the highness of high political office — and how that turgid experience is quaintly manipulated these days. Indeed, Grasso’s footage of this dazzling room of ornamental splendor reminded me of how French Rococo Régence style has become the gold standard for the look of oligarchy, assaulting the viewer with its elaborate, glittering unreality. It is the gorgeous origin of both Vladimir Putin’s and Donald Trump’s ostentatious style.
Trump perfectly fuses the two main uses of digital culture in conjunction with the Régence style of the Salon Doré: projecting royal personification and mass distraction through celebrity. Trump uses his faux-royal style of bling to garner attention and project his wealth-as-worth image, all the while deriding the intense political focus on the hacks that he himself formerly drew attention to (he evoked Wikileaks 164 times in the final month of his campaign), and instructing us now to ignore the issue because “there was absolutely no effect on the outcome of the election.” As Shakespeare might have said, Trump “doth protest too much, methinks.”
“Elysée” is the perfect reflection of what Trump represents when it comes to cyberculture and information warfare. The film’s relevance to the US intelligence revelations is that despite all the cries of ‘no’ to normalization from the left, Trump will soon be normalized by the architectural trappings of the White House’s only slightly less ostentatious Oval Office — a setting that he has been, to some degree, hacked into.