Enter Le Labyrinthe: An Interview with Sabrina Ratté

Enter Le Labyrinthe: An Interview with Sabrina Ratté.” INCITE! Journal of Experimental Media, Back & Forth: Interview Series (February 26, 2013).

Sabrina Ratté is a Montreal-based media artist and the visual part of Le Révélateur, a collaboration with the electronic music composer Roger Tellier-Craig. In 2010, I saw one of the earliest screenings of Ratté’s work in the show, Sleep… in the gallery, curated by the sound artist crys cole at Winnipeg’s Ace Art Inc. Ratté has since been named “One of the most promising names in Canadian experimental film today” by the blog, The Sound of Eye and it can be argued that her work represents the future of retro. Ratté also contributes to one of the nerdiest sites on the Internet, Computers Club Drawing Society, a collective of artists who draw using basic online tools. 

I contacted Ratté in the winter of 2012 to discuss her work and her artistic process. The interview took place over the span of a few e-mails.

Clint Enns: Was Sleep… in the gallery your first screening? 

Sabrina Ratté: It was among the first screenings I participated in as a video artist. L’entre-Deux (2010) and Le Labyrinthe (2010) marked the beginning of my exploration of video as a medium. 

CE: L’entre-Deux is a sophisticated meditation on light and shadow. What role did the camera play in making the piece? Did you exploit the auto-exposure mechanism? 

SR: L’entre-Deux was made while I was on holidays with my family. I only had a small, ten-year-old digital camera with me. It was very basic; there were not a lot of options for manual settings. That day, the sun was really strong and the clouds were regularly passing in front of it. On the white terrace next to the restaurant, the shadows of the palm trees were appearing and disappearing in a very rhythmic way. The ghostly movements of the shadows were so beautiful that I stood there shooting for almost an hour. To emphasize the natural contrast of the image and to add more texture I re-shot the footage off of my computer screen many times. It was the first time I abstracted images through this type of re-photography. Now I do it almost all the time. 

CE: What type of art did you make before these first videos? 

SR: I did my BA and my MFA in the Film Production program at Concordia University in Montreal. I had the opportunity to direct short fiction films and to experiment with 16mm film and Super 8. I was also taking a lot of photos, which remains an important part of my practice. It took me a while to realize that I wasn’t interested in working with film as a material and that I’m not into conventional storytelling. My interest has always been more oriented towards the aesthetic side of cinema – engaging with the image rather than with narrative. On the other hand, as a spectator, I love narrative cinema and it is often an inspiration for my work. Also, video seemed more natural to me. Once I made that realization, everything took on an extra dimension and my relationship with the medium developed quickly. 

CE: Can you describe your collaborative process with musicians? How do you choose the musicians you work with, and how did you begin collaborating with Roger Tellier-Craig?  What comes first, the images or the music?

SR: I started collaborating with Tellier-Craig when I became more dedicated to video. My personal research is very much intertwined with our collaboration Le Révélateur,1 – which involves live projections as well as press photos, album covers, and videos. Even though this project is collaborative it is as personal as my solo work. It has also been very important to my development, both in terms of techniques and idea. With time, my solo practice and my collaboration with Le Révélateur evolved in different directions. 

With my own videos, I tend to seek out music that is more neutral. The music is usually abstract and parallels the visual language, adding interpretations without overpowering the images. The music always comes after the image. With Le Révélateur the music comes first. The melodies and the atmosphere inspire me. With each release, we often discuss our influences and the kind of world we want to create. 

CE: Does the video ever generate the music or vice versa? 

SR: No. I have experimented a little bit with plugging Roger’s synth into my video synthesizer, however, I am not yet convinced that this is the direction I would like to take. I like accidents and coincidences, and the way we work right now provides a lot of them.

CE: You have also made music videos for Innergaze, Steve Hauschildt, Jefre Cantu-Ledesma, Femminielli, Boxcutter, and Raglani. 

SR: I make music videos occasionally with musicians that I like. It is important that the music inspires me, and that I have freedom to do what I want. This way it feels collaborative and it helps me to develop new artistic approaches. Each of these videos represents a step further in my experimentation. Each video I make takes a lot of time and that is part of the process. This is why I have to be selective. Sometimes I do make videos strictly for money, but at this point I am hesitant. Every artist struggles with making a decent living and making time to develop personal work.  

CE: Can you talk about your involvement with Plink-Flojd? 

SR: David Quiles Guilló emailed me, asking if I wanted to participate in this project. It consists of making a video in collaboration with a musician who remixes a Pink Floyd song. In this instance I used video feedback and an Azden analog mixer. David, Yoshi Sodoeka and Eric Mast, the founders of the project, did a fantastic job curating it. I’m curious to see where it will go in the future. 

CE: Are you interested in visual music? Who are some of your influences? 

SR: Visual music has been a huge influence on my work. It’s hard to say which artist influenced me the most, or if they all fit the “proper definition” of visual music. Among others, I would name Lillian Schwartz, Erkki Kurenniemi, Toshio Matsumoto, Ed Tannenbaum, Steina and Woody Vasulka, and Vibeke Sorensen.  Recently I have discovered the work of Michael Scroggins. Totally mind blowing! I often post about artists I am interested in on my blog, Diamond Variations.

CE: Auroratone films are also examples of visual music. How did you become involved with the recent Auroratone project ((The Auroratone Project was a commission of original short films by experimental Canadian filmmakers set to the music of POP Montreal’s 2012 participants. “Auroratones” were abstract musical films used in mental institutions and army hospitals after World War II as a means of soothing post-traumatic stress disorder and general mental disturbance. The technology was invented by the film enthusiast Cecil Stokes, who was continuing on nearly two centuries of previous pseudo-scientific attempts to correlate color with musical tones.)) for Pop Montreal? Did Kier-La Janisse see your work in Winnipeg at the sleep screening?

SR: I don’t know how Kier-La found out about my work, but when she invited me to participate to this project I was really excited about it. The concept of the project was so original and interesting, I had never heard of that film genre before. It gave a whole other dimension to visual music and this was really motivating for me.

CE: Your Auroratone video was extremely well edited. How do you balance working between analogue video synthesizers and digital editing software?

SR: For the Auroratone project I used a similar technique to the Activated Memoryseries (2011); it is based on animated photographs. I then re-photograph the animation and add some video feedback. For the Auroratone, I also added visual textures made with a video synth. The editing was very simple; I didn’t cut anything until the very last sequence when everything gets blue. The animation and the video feedback did all the work. Once I have the perfect rhythm and type of images, the editing seems to take care of itself! This has been true for many projects I have done, but sometimes I do work very thoroughly with precise and multiple cuts, like my last video for Raglani, for instance. 

CE: How did you get involved with Computers Club Drawing Society, and do you approach the process of making images (i.e. drawings) differently than making videos? Are the images tests for your videos? 

SR: I was invited to join the Drawing Society in 2011 by Krist Wood, the initiator of the project and an artist that I admire. It was a real honor. At first, I was frightened… I hadn’t practiced drawing since I was a child; however, it was also a great opportunity to think about images differently and to explore new tools. It turned out to be something that I really enjoy doing. It certainly influenced my video work. I began to think about the videos as drawings or paintings, and I wanted to see how far I could push that idea. In Data Daze (2012), a video made for Le Révélateur, I literally draw in the video image. 

CE: It seems that you are interested in the early CGI aesthetics from the late-80s and early-90s.

SR: Yes, it is something that fascinates me. The idea of creating a very realistic world and yet so obviously artificial creates this tension that I am trying to convey in some of my videos. I guess I have a particular taste for what was made during those decades.

CE: That seems reflected in your choice of video equipment. What analogue and digital tools are you using? Do you prefer one type over the other? 

SR: Definitively both! I use a Sony HDV camera, a Mac, Modul8, and Final Cut Pro. On the analog side of things, I found an Azden mixer that allows me to experiment with video feedback and to manipulate video images in a variety of ways.2 I also bought a LZX video synthesizer, which I am slowly but surely integrating into my work. This is a huge step in my process, and I have been overwhelmed by the potential of that new tool over the last few months. The video I made for Raglani, that I mentioned earlier, is the first time I used images produced by my LZX. 

CE: Some of your work reminds me of Jane Wright’s Electronic Sunsets from the 1970s. The series consists of over 40 video landscapes made using an early video synthesizer. The images are very spiritual, meditative, and soothing. Are you familiar with them? 

SR: I wasn’t until recently! I think you mentioned this connection somewhere before, however, I can’t remember where. I’ve only watched an excerpt on YouTube, so if you happen to know where or when I can see more of her work I would be enchanted!  It is absolutely inspiring, and the treatment of sound, too. 

CE:  I helped transfer some of her videos from 1-inch videotapes at Vtape.  In the future, I hope someone will screen your work together. I’m intrigued by your landscape imagery. It is different from Wright’s work, less representational.

SR: All my personal videos, so far, are based on images taken from “reality.”  Even Transit (2011), the most abstract one, was based on images that I shot in Paris when I was sitting in a café in the evening, mesmerized by the shadows of people passing by an illuminated map. I like that passage from “reality” into a digital one. Another example is Station Balnéaire (2011), which was shot in Italy, on the Amalfi Coast. It is more figurative, which I like; however, it has been completely transformed by video feedback. That process, of transforming landscapes or architecture into something more abstract, atmospheric, where pixels and electronic signals are suddenly prominent, inspires me. 

CE: This can also be seen in the videos Activated Memory I and Activated Memory II, where you transform buildings and landscapes into fluid digital spaces. You’ve also used found footage. How do you choose what images to work with? 

SR: I did work with found footage in the past, but mostly for short experiments. Found Video #1 (2011) is done with found footage as main material, and for Retour des Étoiles (2010) I used some found footage of the galaxy. There is a short clip in Mirages (2010) as well. But eventually, I started using only images that I shot myself. I’m not sure how this happened. I am constantly taking pictures, often of architecture, night shots with artificial lights, landscapes, etc, that I assume I will eventually use in a video. The atmosphere of spaces, and the way I project myself in those spaces, attracts me. I have a blog, la dimension prochaine, where I started to collect my favorite series of photos, which eventually might end up in a video.

  1. Le Révélateur has a limited edition DVD-R, Root Strada release #76. []
  2. Many examples can be seen on Diamond Variations. For instance, see here. []