The name Impasse refers to an “impossible space”, say its creators: an “end of the road” where old paradigms break down and expected ways of working are no longer any use. Denis Beaubois, William McClure and Jeff Stein speak with Urszula Dawkins about how they conceived an enormous foam installation, opening soon at Arts House as part of this year’s Melbourne Festival – a space that visitors must negotiate by squeezing through the cracks…

All three Impasse artists share an aesthetic that’s at odds with the usual expectations of high-energy or high-mobility works. “We are drawn to situations and bodies where possibilities seem to be closed down,” they say, replying to questions for the most part collectively. “Not minimal art, but rather the art of a deadlock; art arising from something that does not appear to offer anything.”

The art that arises, they say, seems to come from ‘beyond’: “Beyond one’s own strength and ability, and arising out of a lack of power, an impotence, a post-human ‘something’ on the edge of nothing. The Impasse project is one of our more extreme explorations of this situation.”

Beaubois, McClure and Stein are all alumni of architectural performance group, Gravity Feed, whose work, they suggest, shifted in emphasis over time, from the body of the performer to the ‘encasement’ of the body by the ‘set’, and ultimately to works that rendered the performer’s body almost redundant.

“[There was] a tendency toward greater and greater modes of density and formless volume, concluding in what came to be known…as an ‘impossible’ space. A space that is so full, so crammed with matter that it is impossible for performers to move and spectators to see. Or, at least in the case of spectators, seeing is no longer their primary point of contact with the space, but rather the body and the pressure it is feeling.”

The process of creating Impasse, say the artists, was necessarily very open; flowing from the decision “to put in place something that undermines pretty much everything that is familiar about working in a particular art form”. They describe this confrontation with limits – limits that must be surpassed in order to create a work – as being “like a mode of shock that disarms our centrality”.

“This explodes the idea of the material as inert matter on which we artists seek to mould and impose a will. Rather the material is made to stand out in a shocking sense, and perhaps the only sense in which it is available to us as an active force that communicates directly.”

The collaborative process ensures a constant “derailment” of individual ideas, requiring each artist to step “into a world not of one’s own making”.

“What we find is that a process is given birth by this ongoing derailment of individual desire by one another – leading up to the much bigger derailment associated with the encounter of the materiality of the installation.”

The extremes to which Beaubois, McClure and Stein were prepared to take Impasse’s concept are evident in their explanation of one plan that had to be abandoned:

“One thought that we had, once we came up with the idea of the foam polyurethane as the material, was to have just one block to fill an entire space; and to give a visitor a Stanley knife to cut their way through the space. We all still like this idea but it’s not feasible.”

“It nevertheless informs our thinking for how we construct the space… We are very much drawn to the idea that the body not only carves out a space that is unique to each visitor, but that this relationship of space and body becomes palpable.”

Extreme spatial experience and physical imposition are at the core of Impasse’s effect on the visitor; but more subtle aims inform the work as well, articulated by each of the artists’ particular interests:

For McClure, a further question became that of a space that was “paradoxical” – “at once approaching absolute density, yet experienced as a void”; followed by the idea of a transformative immersion “in a cracked materiality…the idea that it is only when things start to break down and crack that something new can happen”.

Stein speaks of the relation of individuals to the whole: “You enter alone, not in a mass – this is in opposition to the idea of the spectacle. There is no space, little sound and light and no performer, only the lone spectator’s own struggle. Beyond that, there is our fundamental desire to exist…to see ourselves through others.…”.

The absence of ‘the other’ is taken in a different direction by Beaubois:

“Having removed ourselves from the equation as performers, I also wanted to remove the audience’s bodies from the location. Once the material and space was given prime consideration, the visitors’ bodies would be considered against the material. The paradox of considering an impossible space and then allowing people to navigate the space was also intriguing: this suggested that the ‘impasse’ was not necessarily a physical obstacle, but perhaps more of a psychological state of mind that is self-imposed and encouraged by the architecture – an architecture of doubt.”

The realisation of Impasse also depends on the creative vision of designers Sydney Bouhaniche and Nick Wishart – “to reveal the cracks and let the light/sound in”; along with “production man” Hedge. “All work beyond the set of limitations we impose… They, like the audience, reveal the cracks in our thinking.” Also important, say the artists, is their collaboration with Dunlop Foams, providers of the foam material, and open to the idea of Impasse.

At the most basic level, Beaubois, McClure and Stein see Impasse as “an experience of space”. Obvious, perhaps – “but our hunch is that space is not normally experienced; it’s really experienced just as a backdrop to busy lives.”

“We move through [space], but very rarely experience it, let alone experience its potentiality or its socially constructed nature. So we go to the Kafka revelation – that it is really the mole, the one who is deprived of space, that experiences space… We want to avoid the paranoid dimensions of the creature in Kafka’s burrow – but we also see that as a particular psycho-political production of space, that perhaps defines how space is experienced today.”


Denis Beaubois, William McClure & Jeff Stein

Arts House, North Melbourne Town Hall
Fri 19 – Sun 28 Oct 2012

(03) 9322 3713


About Arts House

Arts House presents contemporary arts in programs encompassing performance, exhibitions, live art, residencies and other activities that nurture, support and stimulate cultural engagement. For more information, please visit
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