Snail ballet: 176 slow dancers await their moment in the slimelight

Snail ballet: 176 slow dancers await their moment in the slimelight

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Only minutes after meeting Elizabeth Saint-Jalmes and Cyril Leclerc at their Paris apartment, I’m invited into their darkened boudoir. Several snails are crawling on the floor next to the bed. Each has a little light-emitting diode attached to its shell that activates sensors on a nearby speaker designed by Elizabeth that is pumping out soothingly drone-like music composed by Cyril.

What I’m witnessing is a teaser for a six-hour, 176-snail ballet called Slow Pixel that the two artists are bringing to London later this month for its UK premiere as part of Cryptic’s Sonica festival. For only £4.50, you can watch illuminated snails crawl around a darkened room to challenging music. Don’t tell me you’re not tempted.

“These snails were raised to be eaten,” Elizabeth whispers. It’s striking how all three of us change our behaviour in this chambre des escargots – we speak more quietly, walk gingerly around the room (none of us want to hear the crunch of calcium carbonate shell) and find ourselves kneeling to get a closer view. We, as much as the snails, are performers in this ballet.

Can you assure me, I whisper, that no gastropods were harmed in the making of this artwork? “Absolutely,” replies Elizabeth, thoughtfully placing one on my notebook, the better to illuminate my shorthand.

She tells me that these eight snails, and the hundreds more she and Cyril keep in the cellar, are from the gastronomically prized species gros-gris (fat greys). “We are vegetarians and in a sense we have freed them from their destiny.” That destiny, most likely, was to be sauteed in garlic butter.

Cyril produces a plant mister and sprays the snails with water. “They like humidity and showering them helps simulate that,” he says. Don’t the snails get stressed with diodes strapped to their shells? “Snails don’t get stressed,” he says. “Their heart rate is always 35 beats per minute. You know when they’re upset, though. They retreat into their shells.”

Cyril, 43, and Elizabeth, 40, have been using snails in their art for eight years. Their first gastropod-based interventions involved feeding snails paper of different colours. Cyril recalls: “We would feed them red paper and they would shit red patterns. And if we fed them yellow and blue paper, what colour do you think they would shit?” Green? “Exactly.”

The French couple’s art has an appealingly daffy, anti-commercial tenor. To clinch the point, Elizabeth takes a hunting horn from its case and blows a few notes so loud as to give any urban foxes in the 20th arrondissement the willies. Not to be outdone, Cyril starts strumming his tampura, an Indian stringed instrument often used to create droning, meditative effects. As I sit on the sofa drinking Japanese tea and snacking on cheese and nuts while they blow and strum, I wonder what the neighbours think.

Solo performance … a leading light in the Slow Pixel ballet.



Solo performance … a leading light in the Slow Pixel ballet. Photograph: © Cyril Leclerc

“We’re very much influenced by Fluxus,” says Elizabeth. That group of 60s artists, musicians, performers and even chefs often created art happenings involving chance, factors that provoked interactions between artist and audience. Elizabeth and Cyril’s work is neo-Fluxus, combining music, choreography and drawing, plus free-roaming snails.

They hope to seduce visitors into a new relation with space and time. In a world where, as Parisian philosopher Paul Virilio has argued, technological change destroys space and compresses time, what a beguiling existential corrective it is to slow to a snail’s pace for a few hours. “Remember when you were a kid and you could sit and look at an insect for hours? Or watch a snail crawl across a path?” asks Elizabeth. Cyril hopes it will give visitors a Proustian rush, provoking bittersweet meditation on impermanence and lost time.

During the performance, Elizabeth and Cyril place the light-bearing snails on the walls, creating effects that simulate the night sky or city lights. While the snails crawl up and down, the artists project video footage behind them shot from the window of the Trans-Siberian Express – as if to emphasise the difference between the human and gastropod pace of life. “What we both found amazing was how on the train, which actually only goes at about 80kmh, you can do nothing but eat, sleep and read – so your mind and body are in a different temporal relation to the world,” says Elizabeth. “That inspired much of what we’re thinking about with Slow Pixel.”

Elizabeth Saint-Jalmes and Cyril Leclerc.



Time and pace … Elizabeth Saint-Jalmes and Cyril Leclerc. Photograph: PP+BL

Do many visitors stay for six hours? “It varies – some stay for just a few minutes,” says Elizabeth. “We insist only on one thing – people leave their phones outside.” They’ve both noticed how some visitors will try to smuggle their phones into the performance space, furtively taking selfies with snails.

“It’s a shame when they do that, because we’re hoping to encourage mindfulness,” says Cyril. “Be in the moment, not always photographing it.” Such mindful art is a growing cultural tendency, embracing things from colouring books, to Rolf Hind’s opera Lost in Thought, to the TV shows that court viewers who want to get a real-time reindeer’s eye view of crossing the Arctic.

“These can be immersive experiences for individuals, liberating them from the everyday world,” says Elizabeth. “Just for a few hours.”

Minutes later when I’m strap-hanging on the Métro, hurrying to catch the Eurostar home to meet a deadline, I realise these two French artists are right: us heedless humans have much to learn from the wisdom of snails.



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