Anita Fontaine and Geoff Lillemon fuse fine art, films, phone apps and gaming into a mind-scrambling mix of the surreal and the soulful. Stephen Whelan takes the plunge

As legend has it, Anita Fontaine and Geoff Lillemon were brought together via a chance encounter at a hot spring. Fontaine, applying lipstick at the time, caught sight of Lillemon as he strolled past clutching a bottle of her favourite champagne and the rest, as they say, is history.

Since that meeting six years ago at the Banff New Media Institute in Canada, Fontaine and Lillemon have gone on to cement their reputation among the new wave of golden children pioneering emerging creative technology. A curious hybrid fusion of fine art, filmmaking, programming and gaming, the work of Champagne Valentine (as they like to be known) has so far attracted the eyes and admiration of rock band Placebo, Polish sculptor Miroslaw Balka and a list of commercial clients that includes T-Mobile and Cadillac.

And not without good reason. The results of their collective labours look and feel like the distorted digital offspring of a union between surrealism and fluxus. The flickering images and haunting sounds of the online worlds they create resemble high art as much as they do advertising, all the while pointing towards a radically different idea of what it means to be a director in the age of mechanical reproduction. Were he still alive, Walter Benjamin would have the words Champagne Valentine laser-projected onto his heart.

“We want to make beautiful things for clients which help solve their problems at the same time,” types Fontaine over IM chat. “And also it has an original flavour,” appends Lillemon. “We don’t want to replicate the safe zone. That’s what makes us different.”

What also makes Champagne Valentine different is their attitude to cross-fertilising different media, from pen and paper to iPhones and apps. Their recent exhibition, My Lover the Server, is a case in point. Playing with the boundaries between internet romance and potential stalking, an online profile for a fantasy female called Avis Rose was created and seeded across the web with the intention of luring people into Skype-calling a phone set up in a gallery. With flat screens playing looped animations pulled off flash drives and exquisite hand-crafted wallpaper lining the walls, the show was all about questioning what romance means in an era where smileys and emoticons have replaced holding hands.

“It’s not about using technology as some sort of gimmick,” explains Lillemon. “It’s about using anything within reach to add another layer to the world and to make it more exciting, more interesting.”

“That’s the whole point,” Fontaine cuts in, “we mix technology with other mediums to create an incredible experience. We want to inject soul into new media and challenge the idea that it’s daggy or only for the initiated.”

Tackling the perception that what they do isn’t directing in the usual sense, Lillemon and Fontaine say the key to getting to grips with technology is to turn it into a game. Set for release early this year, Ghostgarden is an iPhone app developed in collaboration with the third member of Champagne Valentine, Mike Pelletier. The app uses GPS technology to unlock media content attached to specific locations in gardens and parks. By following a floating eye on-screen, visitors to specific sites can add an extra layer of perceptual experience and narrative focus to their wanderings.

The Ghostgarden concept sees the pair extending the thinking behind their collaboration with Tate Modern to produce an app to accompany the current Unilever Series installation by Miroslaw Balka. The portable download plays with the senses as simulated holographic imagery fades in and out of the distance against a trippy soundtrack pulled from sources ranging from classical music to trash metal mixed with angelic choirs and growling demons. Designed to be played in the context of Balka’s sculpturecum-architectural installation, a seemingly endless pitch-black void, the experience takes the iPhone to a whole new realm.

“We approach projects like this as a way of experimenting with mixed reality, I suppose,” muses Fontaine, “creating new mythologies and worlds and fantasies and superimposing them on top of familiar terrains or unknown environments.”

Given their place at the bleeding edge of art-as-commerce, it’s unsurprising that Fontaine and Lillemon accept that a certain amount of schooling and education of clients is an inevitablity. After all, it’s easy to fall in love with what they do without having to stop and think how it is they do it. Integral to their work is an ongoing commitment to experimental research, which, they say, is easier done outside of the usual client-agency-production hierarchy.

“Maybe it’s just us but agencies are seeming more like the middle man,” suggests Fontaine, “and production companies with good reputations are becoming like one-stop shops. I think the question you have to ask yourself is, ‘If you’re talented why work for an agency when you can do it yourself and get your own clients?’.”

Fontaine’s comments certainly ring true given Champagne Valentine’s current repping agreement with Nexus Productions and the company’s clear statement of its intention to invest in digital production with the hiring of Cedric Gairard, ex of 180 Amsterdam, last July. At the same time the pair are more than comfortable working within the existing system, and can list Modernista!, Barbarian Group and Ogilvy as agency partners on their CVs.

“We like to share ideas and knowledge and get them in return,” explains Lillemon, “because creativity is a collaborative effort, a way to dance while working. So when we work with agencies, and also clients, it’s not a case of hammering down an ‘our way or the highway’ message.”

“We aren’t just dabbling in these new technologies, we live it, and have lived in this culture for a while now so we like to educate people through the process,” adds Fontaine.

With their minds set firmly on adding something new to the world as it exists, be it a new mythology, a new spirit of play, or an awareness of the boundless potential of the senses, it’d be easy to think they were dissatisfied with things as they stand. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. “It’s not about saying ’fuck you reality, we can make you better’,” say Lillemon, deflecting possible God-complex accusations. “It’s less punk than that and more seductive. But not cheesy. It’s more like the feeling of sliding on a cashmere sweater after an afternoon in the sauna with a champagne snack.” “Or draping computers with velvet,” finishes Fontaine. The velvet theme crops up again when the sources of inspiration behind their brilliantly bizarre creative chimeras are questioned. “Classical art and music, cats, romance, talking to the natural world, beautiful friends, absurdity in all rights, fairy tales and surrealism,” riffs Lillemon. “For me it’s the thought of gigantic ships covered in velvet with fluorescent pink sails,” Fontaine types.

“Yeah, and a golden pony with a tongue made of chocolate,” Lillemon adds.
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