The Bel-Val Spring Pavilion: it’s as if spring water could speak

An architectural object and an immersive installation, the Bel-Val Spring Pavilion immerses us in an imaginary tale but one that is taken from a true story. This pavilion is one of the stages of the art trail “loop”, a Commune of Sanem project for Esch2022. It uses a device that combines sound and augmented reality to tell the story of the spring water in Belval. Meet Laura Mannelli, who designed the work in collaboration with the architects of BeBunch and with the support of AGORA.

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It will be a public square, a crossing point, a pavilion to stop for a moment of rest and contemplation. With its curves and voluptuous forms, the work evokes the importance of water in the history of Belval and recalls the time when the Bel-Val spring was both an economic lung and a synonym for collective well-being.

In addition to the pleasure of standing there for a moment of relaxation, passers-by will discover a work supported by AGORA and conceived by a singular artist, whose practice is at the crossroads of visual arts, virtual reality, video games and architecture. With this project, Laura Mannelli creates one of her most ambitious works. She tells us about it.

You are trained as an architect but have a hybrid artistic practice combining architecture and digital technology. Can you tell us more?

Laura Mannelli: I quickly moved away from a traditional architectural practice and became interested in immersive design, the radical architecture of the 1960s and places where architecture intervenes in what might be called “non-built spaces”. For me, architecture is not reduced to spaces that are made with walls, there are infinitely more ways of doing architecture, through the immaterial and via broader conceptions of the notion of space. Digital technology has obviously very quickly gained a foothold in my practice; as early as 2007, I developed an immersive creation in the Second Life metaverse, one of the most well-known virtual universes. But gradually, I wanted to create projects that combined virtual reality and the built environment. How do we make it so that architectural works move from the real to the virtual? This is a question that has long been at the heart of my practice. The Bel-Val Spring Pavilion project enables me to respond to this with unexpected means and gives me the opportunity for the first time to think about immersive space in the context of an architectural project.

For a digital installation project of this type, do the dimensions of the pavilion present a particular challenge?

Of course, but above all, I was deeply enthusiastic about them. For an artist like me, the opportunity to work on a 1000 square metre installation does not come along very often, and it’s just great to be able to throw yourself into it! This project combines the engineering of a digital installation with the complexity of civil engineering, with an infinite number of digital cables that run underneath the pavilion and are fundamentally intertwined with the architectural structure itself. I immediately saw the potential to transform the pavilion into a kind of music box, a magical archipelago with its space-time as a cosmogony. In this work, it is the spring that tells us its story through the pavilion, which itself becomes the speaker. People will activate these visual and sound narratives in different ways, following signposts at their own pace, in order to be gradually immersed into a fable that I wanted to be both a reflection of the real history of the Bel-Val spring and a story rooted in current environmental issues, without sacrificing a magical storytelling universe that will engage the imagination and daydreaming.

What fascinates you about the story of the Bel-Val Spring?

My family lived nearby, yet had no idea that this spring existed until I was asked to do this project.

I was surprised and felt quite ignorant but this feeling was soon replaced by an overwhelming curiosity about the story of the spring and an eagerness to tell it to others. There is a magical character to this spring water, which the citizens of the last century really saw as a miraculous remedy for many ailments. Then, the steel industry relegated the spring to the background – but my reading of the archives convinced me that this period should not be seen as an absolute denial of the water of the Bel-Val Spring. I try to avoid any binary vision of things and to tell in a circular way the story of this water that has never stopped flowing through this territory and that still resonates today under this earth. My narrative approach is a bit like giving a voice to the water: it is the water that speaks and tells us. And from this point of view, the water has never been annihilated, it has been following its course for centuries and is trying to continue its journey. Moreover, the metal structures of the pavilion evoke the steel industry and enter into dialogue with the story of the spring.

This voice is therefore the focal point of your creative sound work. Can you explain how this is being deployed in practice?

I take my inspiration very much from the theories of Vinciane Despret who explains, using the example of birdsong, how sound has a real material and physical thickness. I can also mention Donna Haraway and Salomé Voegelin among my inspirations. In the Bel-Val Pavilion project, the spring is seen as a living, intelligent organism. In this way, I spread an invisible web of sound over the entire surface of the pavilion, but one which materialises through the movement of those who follow its trail. The entire pavilion is filled with sound sources, under the floors and in the walls, which gradually allow the journey of the water, the bottling process of the spring water or the voices of the women at work to be heard. This spring is voiced by the actress Catherine Elsen.

To what extent does the work also unfold an environmental discourse, anchored in the current climate emergency?

The project naturally turned towards eco-feminism – my research in the archives in particular led me to discover that the water treatment plant employed mainly women. This sound display also reproduces, in a way, its structure, the cycles of the water and the seasons, attempting to connect humans to nature that they have greatly neglected and with which they have lost their ancestral link. This device is complemented by augmented reality visuals, which bring out intriguing characters, particularly a certain lady in white… The aim is to show reminiscences of the past, in actual size, and to engage in dialogue with the humans who have known the importance of this natural resource and who, indirectly, remind us of the urgency to look at it again.

With the support of AGORA as part of Esch 2022, this work brings the mineral spring of Bel-Val back to the heart of the concerns of the present day.

This project would not have been possible without the collaboration of the BeBunch architects, Frederick Thompson for the immersive augmented reality design, the composer Damiano Picci, actress Catherine Elsen who voices the spring and the implementation of the immersive sound technology of Mad Trix.

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