A Sound Foundation
Avatar and the ever advancing arts of audio
Deanna Radford - November 03, 2010
With its twenty year history entrenched in sonic territories such as bricolage, radio composition, musique actuelle, sound poetry, spoken word, improvisation, installation, electronic and audio art – Avatar, the Québec City based, artist-run centre is a beacon of sound art and practice that embodies a history rich in innovation.
Co-founder and multidisciplinary artist Jocelyn Robert explains that Avatar emerged from several artist-run co-ops and centres in 1992. “There was a need for a place where artists could do sound. [Sound poet] Pierre-André Arcand was involved in Milieu, another art centre, and James Partaik was involved in L’oeil de poisson, another art centre. I was involved in Obscure and I saw the opportunity to gather these people in the same centre. So, I went and called them to a first meeting. And that’s how we founded Avatar.” Over the years Jocelyn Robert has held many roles at Avatar, including having served as artistic director and he is currently the centre’s president.
Specializing in the study, creation and the dissemination of audio and electronic art, Avatar provides a place for creative exchange and includes a research studio, recording equipment, an electronics and computer lab. Other components of Avatar include OHM Editions, their publishing outlet for audio recordings and video; and VacuOHM, which is a distributor of artworks in audio and electronic art. Between OHM Editions and VacuOHM, they have circulated works by founding members as well as by other significant contributors to audio art from Québec, Canada and elsewhere including: Hélène Prévost, Diane Landry, Michael Snow, Paul Dutton, John Oswald, Kaffe Matthews, Ralf Wehowsky, Alexandre St-Onge, Steve Heimbecker, Michel F. Côté, Chantal Dumas, Simon Fisher-Turner and numerous others.
On a personal level says Robert, Avatar has given him; “…a few tools that I wouldn’t have access to. It did give me access to a network…and that’s basically why I founded Avatar. It wasn’t because I wanted to have tools or studios; it was because I wanted access to people.”
The changes that Avatar has witnessed in the technology of sound production since the early nineties are significant, particularly with the growing presence of audio art and of electronic music festivals in Canada and elsewhere. “There was a huge change in tools that were available to us, admits Robert. “We have now a full scale studio with all of the tools and toys. It’s a really professional thing. But I don’t know if it changed the work that was [being done]. What it did change is we’ve got now a couple of people with more expertise. So, when we get to interactive stuff, live controllers, now we’re able to go one step further, which we couldn’t do in ’95 or ’97. It was more bricolage at the time. There’s still a part of that now, but we can also go the other way. The expertise in the house is better.”
Sound art can be a slippery character to capture or define, however a place like Avatar helps to build understandings of sound art. In an essay entitled Volume (Of Confinement and Infinity) A History of Unsound Art (1), Christof Migone, also a founding member of Avatar, wrote; “sound epitomizes leakage, sound confirms the porosity of space… every space has its own soundtrack, its room tone. Every space is sonorous, every space has a breath” (2003). When it comes to marking this magical ambiguity that we call sound art and facilitating the production of a form which calls for, what Montréal curator Nicole Gingras has discussed, the important act of listening (2), Avatar stands rooted and radiant on the horizon of such producers.
Pointing to the impact that Dadaist Marcel Duchamp had on how we view art, Robert explains; “Apart from different aesthetic proposals, one of the basic things he did, was turn visual art into an inclusive field. You can say ‘this is a very bad art proposal,’ but it’s still an art proposal. In music, it didn’t happen. There are still people who will tell you ‘Well, it’s interesting, but it’s not music.’ It’s an exclusive field. That’s how these two fields are different. And that’s why audio art found its roots in visual art and somehow in literature. In the broader sense, that’s why land art, landscape art, didn’t come from architecture and installation didn’t come from architecture and performance was mainly based in visual art; because the visual arts were so welcoming.” On music, Robert says; “It’s a very conservative field in general.”
With this in mind, Robert also points to a concern over understandings of audio art; “I’m a bit worried about it, I would say. Because digital media has taken so much place that it kind of hides the rest. I saw some people writing recently that audio art was based on the digitization, let’s say, of audio. Audio art was born in 1915 but people tend to forget that history because digital media takes a lot of place. If you look at the work of Catherine Béchard and Sabin Hudon – it’s amazing work! Beautiful. It has nothing to do with digital art, you know. So, I’m worried that some work will fall, because of this fascination with digital media.”
Robert cites other Québec artists contributing to this diverse field of sound work; “There’s many things about Jean-Pierre Gauthier, who became a star on the national level and he does audio work; which [is] in-between installation and audio. And there is a place for audio art. So, there’s more happening and with MUTEK, of course, and Elektra and Mois Multi, which shows lots of things.”
Immersed in the production and presentation of audio art on numerous levels, Jocelyn Robert is also an educator and administrator. With this breadth of experience, he holds an important vantage point on developments within the milieu; and all of their nuances. He says; “there are different studies going on as we speak [looking at] what place digital media or digital culture should take and it’s a narrow niche, audio art. And [there are] many people who don’t know about it but have to manage it and go forward thinking they know what it’s about. And this is where I see this tension. It’s hard to define, exactly. But, you see people with laptops… What they are basically doing is improvising electronic music, which is great. Nothing against that. And then they claim they do audio art. And it blurs the lines. People say; ‘I know what audio art is about now. It’s about improvising with a laptop.’ Well, it’s a lot, lot bigger than that and improvised electronic music is a nice step out of the usual music field, but to claim that this is audio art is a bit perverse, in a way, twisted, considering what the background is, what the history is.”
Certainly, the beauty of sound art may lie in the necessarily divergent approaches to its creation. Robert describes one of his favourite audio art works. “I’ve never even seen it, I’ve just been told about this piece and I like it a lot. Supposedly, there’s an idea of drift of continents and one of the arguments for that, one of the scientific arguments, is that there seemed to be a lake in South America that is on the same level as another lake in South Africa, and both are, I don’t know the word for it, water that doesn’t have salt. Certain fish can live in lakes but it can’t live in the ocean. And in these two lakes, you find the same kind of fish. And these are the two only places in the world where you find them. So it seems like the same lake which has been split under the drift of contents. So there was an artist who went and put a microphone and the other place and put loudspeakers in the water so the fish can talk to each other again; he’s re-uniting the family. So, it’s a sound project. Nothing to do with sound. It’s a nice story. It’s audio art. We’re out of sound completely and we’re still in audio art. There’s a lot of things that you could do.”
Footnotes (1 and 2), from:
Le son dans l’art contemporain canadien. / Sound in Contemporary Canadian Art. Ed. Nicole Gingras. Montreal, Canada. Éditions Artextes, Canada Council for the Arts. 2003. 80, 22.
Deanna Radford is a poet and freelance writer currently living in Montreal.