Ride the Lightning

Artificiel make electricity seen and sing

Robyn Fadden - October 13, 2010
Ride the Lightning


For 10 years, Montreal artists Alexandre Burton and Julien Roy have been harnessing electricity to make art that resonates with meaning. Their blend of live performance and installation work, music and image, inherently goes much deeper than aesthetic surface experience, no matter how captivating. As a Tesla coil arcs its purple light across a crowd or a cluster of high-wattage lightbulbs buzz in the night, a much deeper product of technological innovation is revealed: we’re privy to how it came to be and why. Just like their art, their production studio, Artificiel, exists on the digital plane and the wholly physical: a place for the creation of new instruments and contexts for art, the capturing of electric sound and image, and the constant examination of the processes underlying a multi-layered art practice.


The work of Montreal artists Alexandre Burton and Julien Roy comes to fruition only through an array of complex layers: sound and image, production and logistics, acoustic instruments and electricity. In challenging themselves, new possibilities for artistic creation emerge.

“This challenge makes me interested in our process inside a global artistic process,” says Burton. “I wouldn’t be interested in doing something simple. Though I’m interested in having a simple object as a result, rather than abstract complicated stuff – but this simplicity sits over a big pile of complexity.”

As partners in production studio Artificiel, Burton and Roy have built an art practice unique to their backgrounds – both come from contemporary classical music training in composition and electro-acoustics at Université de Montréal, but they’ve wandered well past that and into building instruments come to life through electric currents – and seem to give electricity another life as well.

“Working with electricity is an inherent challenge – you can’t do it if you’re not precise and dedicated to it,” says Burton. “You have to work a lot to get to the point that a project works and is manageable, or it just won’t happen.”

Their artistic practice only distinguishes between music and sound art in terms of what they want people to listen to. “We will write the tracks, there are notes, and the references in terms of structure come from music,” says Burton, “but there are also parts within a work that is sound art, more raw, and there’s a back and forth between the two.”

“The definition of music that permits you to do lots of different things,” says Roy, “is the organization of sound within a timeframe. As long as you plan it like that, it’s music.” Where that definition runs into trouble is in the interplay of performance and installation art – even if an organized piece of music plays throughout an installation, people entering and leaving a room break the time frame, and so can’t necessarily experience music. “You might be creating your own music in that case,” says Roy, “or opening the door to audio art.”


condemned_bulbes @ HNE 2005 from artificiel on Vimeo.


Instrumental Ideas

New media art is often accused of jumping on new, easy-to-use tools without thinking them through. Like a guitarist with a new pedal, sometimes the result is simply noise. Burton and Roy seek to master the instruments they make by playing them in the most challenging ways.

“The instruments I create are both hardware and software,” explains Burton. “I’ve been developing the concept of the ‘lutherie numérique’ [which translates into the less poetic ‘digital instrument making’] for many years now. The idea behind it is that technology leads to instruments for me, and with those instruments we can make a work that is unique to each instrument. For me, it’s the only way to justify new media work.”

For every grand artistic thought, comes a practical one related to issues of production. “There are all sorts of considerations that are not artistic at all,” says Burton, “but we have to think about them; if we don’t, the projects just will not work. If we want to keep being meaningful, it means we have to be on a certain edge technologically, which means we have to consider all the ramifications and logistics.”

As an instrument maker, Burton has to know the intricacies of the materials he uses as much as he has to understand qualities of sound and imagine the contexts in which instruments will be played. For him, there is no discrimination between making a raw electric circuit and a beautiful sound – they are equally important.

Artificiel, while reliant on the digital in the process of making art, is not caught up in the awing thrill of new technologies and the quick implementation of concepts. “It’s easy to implement a concept technologically – with access to resources and an idea, it could be done tomorrow,” says Burton. “The difficult part is to turn it into something meaningful. For me, the idea of instrument is that you have to master it in order to do something that’s not superficial. This is my theoretical approach – to incubate different tools, build them into instruments and then incubate art projects that use these instruments – it’s a long process.”

As with any instrument or artistic medium, art is made both with and through Burton’s hardware and software. Ideas emerge that require a specific instrument, sometimes one that doesn’t even exist yet, but creative content – not objects themselves – is what drives Roy and Burton’s art. “We have to start working when the instrument is done on the second level, that of being meaningful,” says Roy, “where there’s a good balance between the poetry of the result and the basic architectural musical direction and artistic, global visual direction. Meaning comes from the content, not the object – in two or three weeks after you’ve been exposed to it, you’ll remember the feeling that the content creates.”


POWEr demo from artificiel on Vimeo.


Performance Power

The objects that Burton and Roy build and work with do turn out to be remarkable on their own, however. But in a world full of stunning displays propagated through pop culture, where inciting an initial visceral reaction is enough, art has to do better.

Questions of performance and meaning began with Burton and Roy’s 2003 work, condemned_bulbes, created with colleague Jimmy Lakatos at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal and presented around the world since. Sound and light are organized around 25 to 49 thousand-watt incandescent light bulbs. The chorus of electric coils became an amplified instrument, playable by Burton and Roy as well as a number of guest performers (including Thomas Koner, Monolake, Jaroslav Kapucinki and more). As an installation and as a performance, Burton and Roy conceded that condemned_bulbes would always have to change with the space it occupies.

“We had a performance component inside of it, but it was invented as an instrument,” says Burton. “We had people playing it, including us, but in the end, we became disconnected from it, because we preferred the installation to live by itself, not with the intervention of human beings.”

Sound and vision come together in their projects through a kind of creative synthesia, rather than a forced melding of two media. In Cubing, created for MUTEK in 2006, Burton and Roy manipulated Rubik’s® cubes through sound and video devices, creating a mediated experience for the audience.


Performance of Cubing - a whole new face to the Rubik's cube.


Artificiel’s most recent project, POWEr, commissioned for the 10th edition of MUTEK (2009), moves back and forth between being a mediated and unmediated experience, using high-voltage electromagnetic force as the base for an audiovisual project that lays bare its creation process.

The sound of POWEr, even at its most musical, in rhythmic, discernible pulses and drawn-out notes, can be disconcerting at a gut level – it is, after all, electricity arcing brightly from a live Tesla coil. Let’s not forget either, that Nikola Tesla, whose electromagnetism work in the late-1800s lead to alternating current (AC) electric power systems, was something of the mad scientist himself.

“The initial idea was to build a set of different devices that could be played live, of which the resonator was pure electricity, sparks, mad-scientist type stuff,” says Burton, who was searching for a new way to bring human gesture into installations that would otherwise seem like fixed objects.

Their research found the Tesla coil to be the most efficient and precise instrument for literally conducting electricity in the way they wanted, with a raw synesthesia between sound and image. Ironically, that much power isn’t easy to get close to, let alone play with. “It’s more like a technological performance,” says Burton. “We found this device very interesting and predictable in a way.”

In that, POWEr advances Artificiel’s ongoing exploration of what performance is when joined to installation art. “The power performance was built for a standard stage performance, though it’s not a normal setup,” says Burton. “With an installation you have to look at how you create the context, so the installation can guide that.”

From the many sounds made by the coil and plasma beams, Roy and Burton have chosen 20 or so to run live through processors – all sound comes from the physical manifestation of energy, captured by microphones. Consequently, every performance is different, while still composed around the same “global architecture,” that is, the way that moments of sound connect and how long they might last.

For Roy and Burton, the attraction of the Tesla coil isn’t simply in its power potential, but in how sound and image are completely connected – every sample they use is simultaneously both an arc of light and snap of electricity. Together they create something big enough to convey the true power of electricity – within 30 feet of the coil, that power can be physically felt and seen. Audio and video enhancements boost the performance beyond that scope while still maintaining electro-acoustic phenomena – a necessary enhancement to communicate such raw power.


POWEr @ mois_multi 2010 from artificiel on Vimeo.


Art and Artifice

In its constant concern for the art of context and the context of art, Artificiel is as much about aesthetics as it is about fine-tuning, logistics and problem solving.

“We’re not necessarily on a quest for beauty, but of course, we’re on a quest for something,” admits Burton. “Beauty is subjective and cultural. In contemporary classical music, the notion of beauty includes very hardcore stuff, but we’re not trying to behave as contemporary composers who work with hypercomplexity and things that are hard to listen to. For us, the music composition doesn’t have to hold the whole thing; it’s a layer. Navigating between the different elements we want to highlight and doing it properly, for us, that’s beautiful – this balance is embedded inside the work and comes from our attention to it.”

The sounds that Artificiel is interested in are more often abstract artificial sounds that result in emotional response: “I don’t believe in the link between the emotion and where the sound comes from, a particular place – I can create that in the studio,” says Roy.

Burton and Roy seek to create complete expressions of ideas by building what didn’t exist before: all art is artificial when seen from this perspective. And from there, listeners/viewers can interpret the work as they desire.

“If you look at the arcs that POWEr generates live,” says Burton, “you’re not seeing a screen with content, you’re seeing the physical manifestation of something going on in front of you. And if we’re talking about energy itself, what’s interesting is finding ways of putting these phenomena into action and finding something meaningful in that.”



Photos and videos used by permission of the artists.

Robyn Fadden is into the wholly physical experience of sound, but also just simply listens to music sometimes, or dances to it. It's a good thing she lives in Montréal then, where she also writes (and maybe thinks too much) about art, culture, music, science and the intersections between them all.

  • canada
  • quebec
  • experimental

Subscribe to newsletter

Mutek Mexico mailing list
* indicates required
Mutek Spain mailing list