The Nature of Artifice by Ari Spool

Sabrina Ratté talks to Ari Spool about her films and the organic nature of the inorganic artifice.

Discover MFA Programs in Art and Writing

Sabrina Ratté. Faceless Kiss. Music by Jeffre Cantu-Ledesma. Digital and analog video. 2012. All video courtesy of the artist.

Sabrina Ratté’s films are usually set to music made by machines. Out of the 20 or so videos she’s made that I’ve seen, only two had a human figure, and every single one had music made by digital or analog synthetic means—in Sabrina’s work, no one is ever playing the violin. Synthesizers of all types are the soundtrack to her films, and they are almost uniformly lush, ambient, and beautiful.

To talk about the music before addressing the visual elements of the films themselves is necessary: in order to understand the imagery presented one must know that the music is inorganic. A viewer must also engage with the colors, drawn from nature—an aqueous palette of purples and blues, sometimes veering into a heat-map red, sometimes working with beige-inflected oranges and greens. Once familiarized with the music and the colors, all that remains to approach are the shapes. Depending on the music used, the shapes follow different rules. Sometimes they are anthropomorphic daubs, sometimes skittering matrices.

In each of these works, the viewer enters into worlds of Sabrina’s making. A view of these artificial settings is washed with a fuzz, as if the lens has been scrubbed with a scratchy sponge. Nothing stands still—the view out the windows, the floors, and the walls all appear to vibrate, either with the flicker characteristic of a VHS, or with an even, steady glide across other panes of the image. In the presence of these environments the sensation is all-encompassing; the artificiality is, at times, almost overwhelming.

Sabrina lives in Montreal. I live in Queens. Over a month’s time, we corresponded via email to build out this exchange.

Ari Spool I know that you have collaborated a great deal with one musician who creates ambient soundtracks for your films under the name “Le Révélateur.” Do you think that having ambient music combined with video provides a blank sound canvas on which to paint an image? Or do you think that the image comes first, followed by musical accompaniment?

Sabrina Ratté My collaboration with Roger Tellier-Craig, who is also known as Le Révélateur, can be seen as an exchange. I make the live visuals, the videos and the album covers for Le Révélateur. In return, Roger creates the soundtracks for my personal work (under his real name). So the way we work is very different depending on whom initiates the project. When I work with Le Révélateur, Roger gives me the music first and I get inspired by it. I love that way of working, because, as you said, it does feel like a blank sound canvas. And this project also allows me to get into a more pop approach, exploring psychedelic worlds full of colors and textures. For my personal work, I tend towards a more abstract approach, exploring structures and concepts that are often linked with a particular space. Most of the time I have in mind a certain kind of sound treatment, which I discuss with Roger when I have a first draft of the video. So basically, music comes before the images for Le Révélateur, and the images come first for my personal work.

AS Can you describe the physical, real-life spaces that some of your personal work has been associated with? It seems to me that you are playing with the relationship between the exterior and the interior space, but are there other aspects of physical space that you try to represent with motion?

SR Without being premeditated, all my personal video works have been inspired by spaces, landscapes, and architecture. So far, I’ve been working with parks and buildings (Activated Memory I & II), a mountain landscape of Italy (Station Balnéaire), an illuminated map in the streets of Paris (Transit), and a terrasse on a beach (L’entre-Deux). I’m also currently working on a project taking place in different shopping centers, focusing on trees, fountains, and neons. Those elements remind me of some kind of futuristic gardens, mixing artifices and nature.

Video gives me the opportunity to play with the existing formal aspects of spaces. I use their light, their geometry, and their colours as raw material to be transformed through many experiments with video feedback, editing, and, more recently, using a video synthesizer. I tend to translate the concrete space into a more abstract landscape, electronic or virtual, being very interested in the tension between what’s real and what’s artificial. The motion of video is also a way of exploring those notions. With Activated Memory, I’ve worked with basic animation of photography in order to create an impression of a spinning cube and “false” camera movements. The impersonal movement adds a surreal feel to the images, and it helps in giving the impression of an untouchable and utopic land.

Activated Memory 1. Music by Roger Tellier-Craig. Digital and analog video feedback and 3D animation. 2011.

AS What objects immediately come to mind when you think of the word artificial? Why do you think these are the first things to pop into your head?

SR Spontaneously, when I think of “artificial,” I think of fireworks. In French, fireworks are called feu d’artifice, which I find lovely. Fireworks are usually used to celebrate, or simply for spectacle. It is such a strong symbol of the need for colors, light, and movement, and also the will to create from those things. It’s also interesting to note that the word artifice comes from Latin artificium, which means “art.” I am wondering why sometimes the word artifice can have a negative connotation. For me, it is just another manifestation of creativity. Gardens, fountains, neons, virtual worlds, movies, photos, music—artificiality is unavoidable, I think it is an intrinsic part of reality.

AS Do you think that the human tendency to deny the legitimacy of our own creation of artifice is one of the rare acknowledgements of our “animal” side? Perhaps, when we see things we have made that are artificially created or false, we just want to reject them and run back to the woods. But we can’t, because we have this other side that both needs and loves artificiality.

SR I find that the notion of something being false or artificial is very subjective, and suggests that we know exactly what’s true or authentic. For me, these are very complicated subject matters and they could lead in many directions depending on the examples we think of. In general, I keep a skeptical attitude toward a lot of things and I try to stay open to different interpretations. I think that’s why I have a tendency to constantly question what I interpret as being real. Video is a tool for me to distance myself from this reality and observe it in a different manner.

Of course, a lot of what we experience on a daily basis can be considered artificial, and if we don’t keep a critical attitude towards these things we can get lost in them. Maybe some people feel the need to go back to the woods, as you say, because they feel that they lost contact with something “authentic.” I can totally relate to this desire of eliminating the overload of information that we are subjected to everyday, as well as the dependance to all the technologies we need in order to live in this society. It can be very alienating and I totally feel the need to escape once in a while. But I think that going back in the woods for good would be pretty radical and I would also question that choice.

LE RÉVÉLATEUR / DATA DAZE from Sabrina Ratté on Vimeo.

Data Daze. Music by Le Révéleteur. Digital and analog video and 3D animation. 2012.

AS Have you ever seen Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams? In that film he explores a cave in France where humans have been making wall drawings for 30,000 years. So the need to represent things we see artificially is a very basic urge for humanity, dating back to the Paleolithic. How can we find the balance between this prehistoric compulsion and the idea that art should always be “moving forward”?

SR In response to your question, I would like to ask, what does it mean when we think of the idea of art moving forward? More precisely, what does it mean to “move forward”? Unavoidably, it feels that we’re moving forward in time, since the days seem to be adding up to one another, and one experience informs the next, thus creating a certain sense of continuity. But here again, this is a human perception of time, and we see in the succession of events a kind of a narrative that gives the impression of moving forward. It makes me think of the concept of evolution, which can also be problematic for me, if it is seen as an amelioration in time. I prefer to think of “evolution,” or the concept of “moving forward,” as other ways of saying “changes,” without a positive or negative connotation.

I believe that creating is a way of organizing our chaotic experience of life into a representation that makes sense to us, or to the artist. As life is constantly “moving forward” or changing, the art work crystallize a certain reality of a certain time, even if it can still mean a lot to us later on. Through history, we might look at these works of art as documents of specific experiences and see if we can still relate to these experiences. It might help us to create a sort of narrative, a sense of continuity, and witness the changes that occurred through time. So I would say that art has no choice but to be moving forward because it is a language that is built through history and experiences, and it reflects the time it is created in.

To learn more about the work of artist Sabrina Ratté , visit her website.

Ari Spool is the Managing Editor of Impose Magazine, and formerly of ’SUP Magazine. She lives in Queens and loves Errol Morris.

Ryan Trecartin by Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer
Trecartin Bomb 01
The Value of Labor: Rodrigo Valenzuela Interviewed by Forrest Muelrath
A black and white photograph of machine parts assembled in a metal room titled, Afterwork #2, by ​Rodrigo Valenzuela

Films and photographs that address the future of work.

Camilo Restrepo’s Los Conductos by Clinton Krute
Man facing camera.

Camilo Restrepo’s debut feature, Los Conductos, traces the wanderings of a wiry mendigo named Pinky, in a sepulchral unnamed city.

A Life Intrinsic to the Work: RAPHAEL MONTAÑEZ ORTIZ Reviewed by Jacob Korczynski
Cover Raphael Montanez Ortiz1

An overdue publication dedicated to the practice of the interdisciplinary artist, educator, and founder of El Museo del Barrio.