Hyperessay // Tunnel Under the Atlantic

Maurice Benayoun is a French new media artist who dabbles with many forms of media in his work including video, immersive virtual reality, the web, wireless technology, performance, large-scale urban art installations and interactive exhibitions. (Benayoun, 2018)

Fig 1. Tunnel in Paris

One of Benayoun’s better known installations, The Tunnel under the Atlantic, 1995 was a televirtual event that linked the Pompidou center in Paris to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Montréal through a virtual tunnel. The tunnels were two-meter-diameter tubes simulated a linear crossing of our planet, as if it were dug under the ground. It enabled hundreds of people from both sides to meet virtually as seen in Fig 1 and 2.

Fig 2. People meeting across the Atlantic through the virtual event

How it worked was that people would ‘dig’ into memories and pictures of the past for five days before they could meet the people on the other side. The event was filmed with four virtual cameras. The audience could automatically hear audio recordings of them that were being mixed and edited. In the event of a counter-shot, they were able to view their own live pictures floating within the space they have just dug up. This can be observed in the clip below:

Having these remains would allow each person’s route to have a unique experience that pertains to sounds and images from them. Essentially, they would be travelling through a three dimensional space that was created through their movements. 

With this interaction and contribution from the audience, the writing process of the installation would no longer be a definite and established build up of sounds and pictures. Instead, it played with the immediate creations of the audiences exploratory behaviour.  It displayed a combination of chance and determination which defined the result architecture, similar to the balance of chaos and determinant in real life. 

After the exchange, other participants could take the same route or create new ones as if in a collective quest of a shared memory. This very much embraces the idea of entropy, where a natural progression towards an amorphous quality of the signal in the act of exchange occurs.

This reminds me of John Cage’s ideas in Variations V,  1964 when he explored the use of chance to break away from usual deterministic musical compositions. Likewise, he did choose certain elements like sound, texture, and other musical relationships to be determinants. We can observe the similarities in terms of interactivity in both works, where the artist uses systems that transfer control from creator to the creation process. 

To quote Norbert Wiener inCybernetics in History,” 1954, Multimedia: From Wagner to Virtual Realityhe mentions:

“We are now no longer concerned with the study of all possible outgoing and incoming messages which we may send and receive, but with the theory of much more specific outgoing and incoming messages; and it involves a measurement of the no-longer infinite amount of information that they yield us. (Wiener, 1954)

In essence, it is not so much physical phenomena that we explore, rather individual trinkets of information that are being connected and passed to and from observer and machine.

With the installation, Benayoun also displays ideas of immersion. To quote from Ivan Sutherland in The Ultimate Display,” 1965,  he states:

“The ultimate display would, of course, be a room within which the computer can control the existence of matter. A chair displayed in such a room would be good enough to sit in. Handcuffs displayed in such a room would be confining, and a bullet displayed in such a room would be fatal. With appropriate programming such a display could literally be the Wonderland into which Alice walked.” (Sutherland, 1965)

However, Benayoun’s idea of immersion was slightly different from Sutherland’s, and he focused on the essence of a place instead of the realness of it through programming. Here is a quote by him:

“Artificial Intelligence, real time graphics, sound generation, multi-sensory apparatuses and robotics may be highly sophisticated, but making art is not just a complex form of DIY to be confused with funny electronic gadgets.” 

To conclude, Benayoun chose not to not immerse the audience in real time footage of the actual places each party was situated in. Rather, by using footage of the audience themselves, he created a fantastical tunnel that was immersive in its own form. It created a new world that brought both audiences from each location together in an immersive and virtual tunnel that each of them created together. This idea of immersion created an artwork that balanced both interactivity and immersion in a single event which contributed to its breathtaking performance.

772 words



Benayoun, M. (2018). The Tunnel under the Atlantic. Retrieved from http://benayoun.com/moben/1995/09/14/the-tunnel-under-the-atlantic/

Wiener, N. (1954). Multimedia: from Wagner to virtual reality. Choice Reviews Online39(05), 39-2840-39-2840. doi: 10.5860/choice.39-2840

Sutherland, I. (1965). Augmented Reality: “The Ultimate Display” by Ivan Sutherland, 1965. Retrieved from https://www.wired.com/2009/09/augmented-reality-the-ultimate-display-by-ivan-sutherland-1965/