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Gakona: Art Goes Electric in Paris

Health warnings and disclaimers about liability may be commonplace in amusement parks and funhouses, but—despite galleries’ ongoing encouragement of viewer participation—they are still surprising to see next to contemporary-art installations. That may be one of the reasons Micol Assaël’s installation Chizhevsky Lessons was surrounded by a throng of eager viewers at the Palais de Tokyo’s recent group exhibition “Gakona.” Pamphlets handed out by security guards in front of the installation cautioned that people with pacemakers and pregnant women were not permitted, advised that we should “avoid touching other visitors’ faces, especially the eyes” and promised that the work would “load the body with static electricity,” functioning as a daunting dare as much as serving as a warning.

It seems fitting, however, that intrigue, rumours and conjecture should accompany the art in “Gakona,” a group show inspired by and named for a small town in Alaska where, reportedly, secretive experiments with electricity are carried out by the American government. Funded by the military and inspired by Nikola Tesla’s groundbreaking experiments with electromagnetism, the HAARP research program (High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program) has long been a source of scientific speculation. In this show, four European artists take Gakona’s sci-fi reputation as the inspiration for a series of sculptural installations that combine quasi-scientific experimentation, fantastical hypotheses and, of course, electricity to explore the intersections of fact and fiction.

While Assaël’s nearly invisible but highly affective installation follows through on its promise to create an electrostatic field around the viewer, providing a literal, viscerally felt hint of the kind of experimentation that may be taking place at HAARP, other works in “Gakona” use subtler means to explore the formal and theoretical implications of the project. Working from aerial research photographs of the Gakona area, the French artist Laurent Grasso has built a scale model of HAARP’s transformer towers in the gallery space. Though a single tower would seem harmless on a suburban street corner, their proliferation and eerie massed arrangement in the gallery seem ominous, even violent.

Likewise, Swiss artist Roman Signer skirts the boundary between madcap experimentation and potential danger by creating dynamic sculptures that transform everyday objects into conductors for electrical current. In Parapluies, for example, two umbrellas connected to Tesla coils sporadically emit noisy blasts of electricity, while in Chaises a renegade electric lawnmower careens among a dozen plastic chairs. Finally, while the minimalist works of Berlin-based artist Ceal Floyer harness electrical devices to create clever conceptual puns, such as the tongue-in-cheek intervention Taking a Line for a Walk (1 Litre), their quiet self-reflexivity seems at odds with the audacity of the other projects; they risk being overlooked by viewers overstimulated by the rest of the show.

Taken together, the projects in “Gakona” offer a fascinating and often bracing glimpse into the aesthetic and theoretical potential of HAARP’s electrifying experiments, reminding us of the ways art and science frequently converge at the fringes. (13 ave du Président-Wilson, Paris FR)

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