Illusions of Grandeur
Innovating Montreal multimedia company Geodezik blows up the show
Robyn Fadden - February 17, 2011
Everything one invents is true, you may be perfectly sure of that. Poetry is as exact a science as geometry. – Gustave Flaubert
Geodezik calls itself a multimedia company, but in its spectacular video productions for Cirque du Soleil, The Killers, Justin Timberlake, Cher’s Vegas show, as well as smaller scale creations for Mutek, the company takes collaborative multimedia work to its limits. Founded in 2005 by Jimmy Lakatos, Mathieu St-Arnaud, Raymond Saint-Jean and Olivier Goulet, Geodezik designs video control systems for public art installations and stadium shows alike, merging each project’s criteria and technical requirements with a creative vision that seems to link directly to the precipice of whatever popular culture is about to become.
Among those artists creating “immersive” experiences, debate crops up about how the word itself is used – namely that it’s too easy, a kind of catch-all that doesn’t do justice to the theory and practice of any chosen art form, let alone the technical and creative process behind it. For all the research, technology and long hours that go into Montreal-based multimedia company Geodezik’s stadium-sized 3-D-video-projection shows, the most common reaction to the finished product is a resounding “Whoa.” Or, among the more literate, “Now that. Is cool.”
And that’s just fine – really, it’s one of Geodezik’s goals. With roots going back to ‘90s rave culture, Geodezik is a group aware of its role in making a good time better for everyone. Some of that work is in building incredible, big-budget, storeys-tall spectacle, set to music and on-stage action, every dial at 11. It’s spectacle that seems nothing like the real world, and yet, of course, it exists within that world and affects our experience of it. On this level and in the scope of artistic thought and practice, Geodezik takes outrageous or simply strange visions and actually makes them happen, through innovative technology, dedicated problem-solving and some gutsy ideas of their own.
Still from Pink
Bright lights, big city
The story of Geodezik – the people involved, the ideas the company grew out of, and the many places it expanded to – could be told from its small-but-spry beginnings, or from its celebrity-soaked meaty middle, or from where co-founder, producer and head of Research and Development, Jimmy Lakatos finds himself now, with one foot in the future. Though by all accounts, he’s always been that way.
“When I started, I had this need to create projections early, back in 1985, studying visual arts at University of Montreal,” says Lakatos. “What I really liked was installing stuff and creating an immersive environment with sculpture and photography. I started working with slide projectors and 16-mm projectors – video projection was non-existent at that time in Montreal.” His first full-scale “production,” also in 1985, was a projection of Jean Cocteau’s Blood of a Poet on the facade of an old church near downtown Montreal. He put some posters up around town and brought his equipment, including a projector and a generator rented from the city, over to the site by bike. Six people came.
A curse of future-oriented thinkers everywhere is that their ideas, once executed, are often met with a kind of confused indifference. Another curse is that when, or if, these ideas catch on, now imbued with an aura of amazement, they’re usurped into popular culture, becoming so commonplace as to be taken for granted. The wonder kind of dies. The benefit of being a future-oriented thinker is being able to come up with some other, astonishing thing.
“My goal was just showing people this, taking really nice content and reinterpreting it via a new wall. That was the beginning for me of the search for new screens,” he explains. “This really was for me very intuitive. It was the beginning of video projection, but I knew that this project was also a statement of where I would be headed – I was just hoping to learn more and more about creating content.”
Lakatos went on to learn video editing and other technical skills at artist-run access centre PRIM. When, in the early ‘90s, theatre company Espace Go purchased two video projectors (at a cost few, if any, solo artists could have afforded at the time), Lakatos set up the video components of the show at L’Oratoire St-Joseph, branding himself one of the only video technicians of his kind in town.
“And what started in the early ‘90s in Montreal?” he asks, and the pieces are easy to put together by this point: the rave scene. Lakatos recounts this history not with nostalgia for the city’s warehouse-party hey-day, but simply with a recognition of the excitement in the air at that time about how art, technology and entertainment could merge in new ways. The underground not only allowed for experimentation, but outright asked to be surprised, thrived on it.
Geodezik founder Jimmy Lakatos
As the parties grew and Lakatos collaborated with more artists, technicians and musicians, the multimedia set-ups became more elaborate – with multiple projectors and VHS decks, the equipment filled trucks and took days to set up. Lakatos and his team, without complete models to base their work on and adhering to this new “rave aesthetic” of abstract forms feeding back on each other in time to music, became pros by trial and error.
“Eventually, we tried to create what Alain Mongeau [a friend and Mutek festival founder and Director] saw in Australia, where artists were creating Temporary Autonomous Zones,” says Lakatos. “To me, those spaces were the first idea for creating a multimedia approach with everybody coming in with what they know and creating a kind of super event, where dance was the focus but it went out from there, where we could create and research new ideas, share them with a new audience. It was a really challenging time, but we had a lot of fun doing it.”
In 1997, Mongeau organized the new Media Lounge at the Montreal Festival of New Cinema and New Media (FCMM) – what was to become a precursor to Mutek (which began in 2000). The Media Lounge paired electronic music with new media arts, including Lakatos’ high-tech video work. But while Mongeau continued to build the new festival, Lakatos moved on to television work, and in 2005, paired with Raymond Saint-Jean as a video set-design producers on Cirque du Soleil’s first video-oriented multimedia show, Delirium. It was the beginning of a new era for him and his collaborators, and in 2005, Geodezik was officially born.
In mathematics, a geodesic is the shortest line between two points, namely on the curved surface of the Earth. Lakatos’ job was to draw that line, from idea to fleshed-out product, and not get too spaced-out in the process. Essential to that was recognizing talent and letting it go in the unexpected directions that tend to crop up in a technically demanding creative process.
“The technical side evolves so quickly, no one person is able to keep up and know everything. I needed a team in order to grasp everything,” he says. In 2000, he brought in Mathieu St-Arnaud, a young, fast-thinking software developer (part of his Synergie team). “We developed our own style, and started to work with TV in Montreal, where that style [of video scenography] was in demand. The video world started having a very complex set up – a multi-projection network with a lot of servers – we were right at the beginning of that.” And when Delirium happened, Lakatos brought in technical director Olivier Goulet, now President of Geodezik, and two new software developers (who now run 3-D video projection mapping company VYV).
Cirque proved to be both the key and the door to even bigger things, among them video design for Justin Timberlake’s Future Sex/Love tour, including content, shooting, editing, animation and FX integration on multiple circular screens (a challenge and a coup, as Lakatos tells it), further projects with Cirque, including a giant video sphere for ZAIA, the “virtual conductor” concept for Kent Nagano and the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal, and video design for awards shows and dance and theatre productions.
In producing these projects, Lakatos intuitively brought in talent when he saw it – this is how the Geodezik team was built. “Timberlake was the beginning of having the artist in the middle with projections surrounding him – it was becoming more and more the way to do things.” As more projects came their way, each partner played to their own strengths, with Goulet producing the American shows with Gabriel Coutu-Dumont, now co-head of Production for Geodezik with Etienne Cantin. Lakatos recently took on the exploration of new entertainment markets with a focus on education.
“We’re creating tools [with Alex Burton of Artificiel] to create new spaces where you work with a lot of technology but at the same time where education is important. I’ve left the world of only entertaining people to come back to a place where there’s more meaning, and it’s still fun, of course.”
Lakatos has produced events at Montreal’s Highlights Festival and at Mutek, such as his 2009 light-diffraction collaboration with the group, Nonstandard Institute (NSI). Most recently, he directed a projection installation on the facade of Saint-Jacques Church at UQAM’s Judith-Jasmin pavilion. Still evolving throughout the winter season, the project experiments with the possibilities of how a shared, three-dimensional, public canvas can be used by several light artists given the tools of a digital system capable of reproducing the church’s contours.
Photo by Martine Doyon
Lakatos isn’t going full circle back to his artistic beginnings, however. Geodezik’s success is based on producers, designers and artists working together in parallel. While still creating immersive spectacle, the company continues to investigate what it means to be inclusive in the immersive, where “users” even have a direct impact on the production, are truly a part of it.
“The digital culture for me today is almost complete – we are living in a digital world,” he says. “Now it’s time to create tools and events that respond to that reality... festivals of the digital age. It’s not esoteric, it’s really simple.”
“One thing I’m fascinated with right now is knowledge as a product,” says Lakatos, referring not only to our increasingly intimate relationship with digital culture – in mobile computing, electronic music, immersive digital art – but to an increase in the spread of complex ideas, especially online. Conferences extend beyond academic disciplines and locales, as we’ve seen with the popularity of Ted.com and Poptech.org, and despite the decline in print publishing, the demand for a human story to connect to hasn’t gone away. The current online information glut, however, is unsustainable, maintains Lakatos.
“I’m working on the idea of digital philosophy, where we can give tools to people to think more effectively, to really discuss what’s going on in all this information around us,” he says. In that, art is integral to the discussion of our capacity for creation, collective empathy and recognition of individual truths.
Yet art doesn’t always make for a stunning, easy-to-understand final product. It takes time, sometimes decades, for artist and for viewer, to figure out. In art, process is just as important, often more important, than a discernible finale. At this point with Geodezik, Lakatos sees the possibility for process and product to meld and still maintain integrity.
“Purity is the guideline for just saying the plain truth of what you’re doing, so I can put myself in the right place to receive and understand your work,” says Lakatos. Watching Artificiel artists Alex Burton and Julian Roy (with whom he still collaborates) create their project POwer, he saw an equilibrium between artistic purity and design of the spectacular: “In the end, there are two schools: the school of the result and the school of the process. In POwer is the real search for new ways to extract sounds from objects and create relationships between them... This is the true way to create a history of art – it’s not a history of design, it’s about bringing about a new knowledge.”
“I support people who search and find new ways of doing things, even if the final result can suffer,” he adds. “I know that results are needed in other places, of course, so let’s step up, make real money with that, and invest it in something that is really art.”
It’s not the least contentious philosophy around, but it does acknowledge that the seemingly intangible future is what we need to invest in, while the present is for concrete action. “We need now to work together, to make sure that we can sustain really good growth without compromise. This is the long-term mission,” says the artist-designer-producer, comfortable at those crossroads. “And the final step in being able to create great events for everyone – purists, commercial interests, designers, a true something for everybody.”
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.