Performa 13: Philippe Quesne’s “Bivouac” Tracks the Mole Man to Pioneer Works

Saturday evening at 5pm, we got on a large white bus with tinted windows in Carroll Gardens. The bus was “transportation,” we thought, to “Bivouac,” an installation by artist Philippe Quesne (known for his clean, sparse performances, interventions, and installations in public spaces) as part of his contribution to Performa 13. But as soon as the wheels started to roll, the lights went down, a video showed a person in a rodent-outfit, and over the speakers we heard some melancholy, at times ominous, Nino Rota-esque music. Quesne, stood up from his seat and told us over a microphone, mostly in French, that he would be filming us during the event.

After an ambient ride through the streets to Red Hook, we stopped by the waterfront. We were asked to get off the bus and walk toward the chain-link fence and told we would be filmed doing this. We all got off, walked some distance, and looked out over the water, which seemed a little grim except that you could spot the Statue of Liberty, which looked tiny but was shining brightly in the distance.

Back on the bus, the eerie music playing again, the lights low, we continued our trek until the bus stopped and Quesne said loudly but calmly, “We’re going to wait, because the mole wants to cross the road.” We got up from our seat and peered out onto the street, where a person in a mole-suit walked slowly across the street and then ambled surreptitiously along the wall. Also outside on the sidewalk was a man with a camera on a tripod, filming the mole’s jaunt. The bus meandered along the street until it stopped at a garage door that opened onto a brightly lit room, the bottom of which was completely obscured by smoke, which was gushing in rivulets along the floor and rising up into a fine translucent mist.

We had arrived at our final destination, Pioneer Works, artist Dustin Yellin‘s artist residency program and exhibition space. The last time we had been here was one year ago, right after hurricane Sandy, when Yellin’s space was filled with art that had been damaged by the storm and Yellin, at that time, said he had lost “everything.” On Saturday it looked great, what we could see of it in all the smoke. We spotted Yellin with his messy hair and heavy coat.

We were asked to walk across the room. As we walked through the smoke, guided toward the other end by eerie high-pitched music, we spotted a Toyota Camry with its high beams on, and a pile of wood. Next to that ensemble, like a talisman, was the man in the mole costume. In Paris, in 2003, Quesne founded the Vivarium Studio, a theatrical performance company that features painters, musicians, actors, and dancers. The Performa installation was the first time “Bivouac” had been staged in New York, though it had already been performed several times in Europe. The footage taken that night would be part of a video installation that would include imagery from all the versions of Bivouac.

At the other end of the room, when the smoke cleared a little, we could make out the mole man walking toward a woman moving her hands in the air as if controlling strings of an instrument. It was Dorit Chrysler, the founder of the New York Theremin Society —she has been called the “theremin goddess.” We stopped to watched her perform. Even the mole man seemed entranced.

At one point, seemingly without notice, people started slowly walking away back into the smoke. It turned out there was a make-shift bar serving whiskey and Coke. One last time, they had us walk through the fog, this time with a clear purpose.

— Rozalia Jovanovic

(Photos by the author.)