'Like the sky at night': Artists choreograph 6-hour ballet starring 176 illuminated snails

In France, gros-gris snails are usually considered food. But one French couple prefers to think of them as art.

French artist says interactive installation is about slowing down and reconnecting with nature

A six-hour, 176-snail ballet and light show called Slow Pixel is heading to London. (PP+BL)
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In France, gros-gris snails are usually considered food. But Elizabeth Saint-Jalmes and Cyril Leclerc prefer to think of them as art.

The Parisian couple are taking their six-hour "snail ballet" art installation to London for Cryptic's Sonica festival on Friday and Saturday.

"[People] love eating them, but they also love watching them, looking at them," Saint-Jalmes told As It Happens guest host Susan Bonner.

The vegetarian artists have been working with snails for years.

One of their earlier creative enterprises involved feeding the creatures colourful paper and making sculptures out of the bright and patterned poop.

For months at a time, the pair shared their home with dozens of their delicate little muses.

"This animal became kind of our pet. You know, we always had some snails at home," Saint-Jalmes said.

"We were having them take showers and make babies ... have eggs in the plants, so it was like observing nature at home."

That reconnection to the natural world, she said, inspired their new installation.

It features 176 snails spread all over a dark room, each with a light emitting diode attached to its shell with a safe and easy-to-remove paste.

"It looks like the sky at night, actually," she said.

The snails begin the show placed in geometric patterns, but are free to move about the room at their own pace — as are the audience members.

"The snails go their own way," she said. "They move in an anarchist way."

Elizabeth Saint-Jalmes and Cyril Leclerc make art with snails. (Submitted by Elizabeth Saint-Jalmes)

The diodes activate sensors on a speaker, which plays a slow drone-like music that moves in step with the tiny dancers.

"The music is really changed by the movement of the snails and also by the audience, which also interacts with the lights of the snails," Saint-Jalmes said.

That interaction, she said, is key.

"The audience first really arrives in the scene and their first gesture is to get very close to the snail, to have a very close look," she said.

"The audience is most of the time lying down or on the floor, underneath and across the space, and they move in the space and they take a child's position."

The snails have light emitting diodes attached to their shells using a safe and easy-to-remove paste. (Cyril Leclerc)

The installation is open for six hours, but people are free to come and go as long as they please.

There's only one rule: no phones.

That's partly to prevent the light pollution from altering the effects of the diodes — but mostly it's about getting the audience to slow down and take it all in.

"We encourage people to be here and now in the moment," Saint-Jalmes said. "It is a mindfulness experience."

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Alison Masemann.

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