Luc Courchesne
by Zehao Chang

Luc Courchesne is a media artist who currently explores and extends immersion in the traditions of the panorama, using that to provide a landscape and context for his prefilmed characters to reside in. These characters continue the themes in his earliest works in interactive video, and with whom visitors to the piece can converse. Although the choices and branches in the interaction are limited, his work does highlight and questions aspects of subjectivity and social interactions.


Luc Courchesne was born in 1952 in St-Léonard d'Aston, Québec. He graduated from the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, Halifax in 1974 with Bachelor of Design in Communication. Then in 1984 he went to MIT for a Master of Science in Visual Studies, 1984. Now, he is a professor of Industrial Design at Université de Montréal and is the president of the SAT (Society for Art and Technology, or Société des Arts Technologigues), which has artists-run centers devoted to new media in Canada.

In 1984, he began experimenting with interactive video when he co-authored Elastic Movies, one of the earliest experiement in the field with Ellen Sebring, Benjamin Bergery, Bill Seaman and others. He has produced more than many interactive video pieces since then, these include Encyclopedia Chiaroscuro (1987), Portrait One (1990), Family Portrait (1993), Hall of Shadows (1996), Landscape One (1997), Passages (1998), Rendez-vous (1999) and The Visitor: Living by Numbers (2001).


Portrait One (1990) was the first of many video installations where Courchesne began exploring the theme of computer mediated human interaction. At first glance the piece shows a video portrait of a French-speaking woman named Marie who would not be looking at the user but staring off into space. Visitors to the piece can use a touchpad to select sentences or questions with which to converse with her. Every interaction begins with “Excuse me…” as a method of getting her attention, after which there can be up to four choices of questions or responses and it is up to individual choice as to which path to take. The extent of this conversation varies depending on the visitor’s interest or curiosity level, it may be an interaction cut short by putting Marie in a mood, or a prolonged conversation leading to topics of virtual relationship. An online version of Portrait One can be found at
Later works such as Family Portrait (1993) and Hall of Shadows (1996) take the concept of interactive portraits further, by introducing multiple networked portrait personalities. The multiple portraits may be accessed individually by multiple visitors, but in interacting with the piece, visitors may inadvertently trigger conversations or arguments amongst the portraits. With these pieces Courchesne is now experimenting with collective interaction, between real and virtual characters.

With Landscape One (1997), Courchesne takes his video work towards a different emphasis. Again the visitor interacts with virtual portraitures within the context of Montreal’s Mont-Royal Park, but in this case he is immersed in all sides by projections and conversations with the characters may lead them some place in the park. Where the visitor is able to visit is dependent on his/her relationship with the characters, and as such dialogue is the primary factor in mobility in this work. This theme is continued in The Visitor: Living by Number (2001), where instead of four walls of projection the visitors are placed within a hemispheric projection device (Panoscope 360). The visitor is placed in a Japanese countryside, and they can explore the landscape by saying a number between one and twelve to indicate the direction they wish to go. The same numbers are used to conduct conversations with the characters in the world.


In interacting with Courchesne’s installations, one is drawn into a conversation with a virtual character whose responses are predetermined and similarly one is given a limited predetermined set of questions. In one sense he’s recreating the portrait as an artform in the context of modern computer-mediated artwork, however, more importantly he is bringing into attention the modes of social interaction that we face. The importance of dialogue-driven interaction is one of the strong themes in this piece, as the Marie character in Portrait One describes,

“All this because of a gesture, a word that's spoken. It's crazy! We are the fruit of this gesture and yet this gesture of reaching out to the other has to be forever repeated!”

In addition to pure dialogue, facial gestures and in later works, the surrounding environment/context, work to immerse the visitor in this interaction despite limited choice of things to say. Another aspect that helps interest in immersion, at least with the case of Marie, is that she is self-aware of being a virtual being, with introspective remarks that comment on the consequencelessness of actions when interacting with a virtual being.

In The Visitor: Living by Number, the user explores and interacts with characters while being immersed in an alternate place/world. Choices one makes determine levels of connection between the protagonist (as one always assumes being the doer in the interaction) and the variety of paths and events offered to him/her. As such, this piece seems to contain elements of games like Myst and Final Fantasy.

In these games, there is one main storyline that ties in whatever side detours they may have in store for you, and as such at all times the user is aware of his task which in the case of Myst is to discover what is going on. Instead of emphasizing one main goal in the case of games, different user can take different paths depending on their curiosity or desire. Subjectivity is highly integrated into his work; each individual experiences a completely different world. Successful outcome of the interactions is hinged on ability to communicate well with the characters.

However, once a person begins to grasp the workings of the piece, in which “successful” interaction with the character is rewarded with further interesting interactions, the game-like goal-oriented attitudes begins to manifest itself. Indeed, this is a limitation of this type of forked paths virtual worlds, as finite energy is used in its making there are only finite possibilities, which leads to few interesting outcomes. Despite this limitation, what is does bring, if the character’s lines are well written, is a sense of noticing or discovering the modes of social communication inherent in the worlds the artist created for us.


Recent works of Luc Courchesne continues the cultural traditions of panoptics and panoramas and concentrates on simple ways to create and present immersive environments. However, in doing these projects he has not abandoned his earlier emphasis in social communications with virtual characters via dialogue. In the end, his ultimate goal is to create contexts for interpersonal encounters, whether between real persons or between persons and predetermined characters, and creating works that combines immersion and modes of social interactions.


Gagnon, Jean. translated by Bernard Schütze. Portraits of Dialogue: The condition of sociability in the interactive portraiture of Luc Courchesne [online]. HorizonZero Issue 11. Availble from the World Wide Web: (

Morgan, Anne Barclay. 1995. Luc Courchesne. Art Papers Jan/Feb 1995 p.60-1

Parent, Sylvia. translated by Bernard Schütze. 2003. Interview with Luc Courchesne [online]. HorizonZero Issue 11. Available from the World Wide Web: (