Electronic Quebec: Sonic and Visual Explorations at Vidéographe, 1971-1974
By Eric Fillion

Québec électronique
 

**Translated from the French by Vithèque**

The founding myth of video art is the use of “prepared televisions” that were initiated by Nam June Paik during a 1963 exhibition titled Exposition of Music – Electronic Television. From its beginnings, this art current paralleled experimental music in its efforts to divert the television medium in favour of free and innovative creation. The commercialization of the Portapak camera in the mid 1960s as well as the subsequent setting up of an increasing number of production and dissemination centres contributed to the establishment of the video art form among certain European, American and Canadian avant-gardes. By way of its promotion of citizen expression and its encouragement of unhampered artistic practices Vidéographe played a catalyzing role in Quebec. The current program proposes to revisit the founding years of this organization through an overview that highlights the special relationship linking video art with so-called experimental music. [1]

Vidéographe was founded in 1971 and was at first an outgrowth of the NFB’s Challenge for Change project. Robert Forget, its founder, sought to facilitate access to new audiovisual technologies in order to “democratize the image.” [2] In April, 1973, Vidéographe received letters patent that confirmed its status as a not-for-profit organization. At the time its mandate was to “promote citizen expression by making electronic facilities—likely to contribute to this expression—available to all.” [3] He was active for a year and a half as a producer-disseminator and thus contributed to the emergence of a Quebec video scene that produced a mix of documentary, fiction and video art works.

Located a stone’s throw from the Théâtre St-Denis, Vidéographe housed a videotheque, a video screening space, an editing suite, a recording studio and a broad range of equipment available 24 hours a day. The work , Entrée en scène (1972) presents a visit of the organization’s venue guided by Forget.

The growing use of the Portapak as a research and social intervention tool was inevitably accompanied by an extensive production of documentary videos. It is therefore not surprising that directors appropriated video to portray the musical practices of a post révolution tranquille Quebec. Raymond Gervais and Michel Di Torre, the co-founders of the Atelier de musique expérimentale, made Ce soir on improvise (1974) to allow musicians, who they had encountered, to “freely express” themselves, but also to “jointly seek to understand, question, and define a communal/collective action; to free oneself and to play.” [4] For his part, the painter-videomaker Pierre Monat joined forces with Jazz libre du Québec and directed Y’a du dehors dedans (1973), a staggering work halfway between the documentary and art video genres. This video recording—with its soundtrack, unusual editing and use of feedback—bears witness to the fact that at Vidéographe formal research was not only possible but actually encouraged

The organization offered young artists the opportunity to work freely—and often for the first time—with sounds and images. This was Michel Lemieux’s case, who, at the age of thirteen, made experimental videos in which he focused on the perceptible traces of sound in urban space. [5] Vidéographe was open to all; one needed only to submit one’s proposal dossier to the selection committee, which allocated the budgets and ensured access to the equipment. Forget thus became the designated producer of many projects, among which Libidante (1972), an animated erotic video made by Micheline “Mousse” Guernon. She filmed her protagonists separately and used various techniques to modify the image and evoke the impossible carnal encounter between a man and a woman: “The masculine and feminine image sit by side, are superimposed or intertwined, but they never really touch each other.” [6] Guernon composed an ethereal electronic soundtrack that she joined with the image, but here too the symbiosis turns out to be impossible; it’s a music that accompanies the protagonists, but which never unites them. A similar observation can be drawn from Point au carré (1972), a surprising video by Jean-Pierre Poirier in which one hears a Moog synthesizer improvisation against the background of deconstructed landscapes—a voluntary dissociation that in no way questions the possibility of a true fusion between video art and experimental music.

During the month of August, 1972, Vidéographe received a proposal from an artist who wished to create an “audiovisual composition based on a musical experiment” by the composer Alvin Lucier [7]. The letter was signed by Richard Martin, a young videomaker and composer who wanted to highlight the special relationship between video art and new music. At first associated with the Université de Montréal, where he studied with Serge Garant (1969-1970), Martin then opted for exile in Connecticut (1970) and enrolled in courses given by Lucier. This is where he met John Cage, Terry Riley and Robert Ashley. Furthermore, he studied with Ashley and Pauline Oliveros during a stay in California (1971-1972) where he was also introduced to video production. Based on the piece I am Sitting in a Room (Lucier, 1969), Métamorphoses (1972) focuses on visual and aural transformations that unfold while a sequence is projected and filmed in loop form. Martin explains: “The soundtrack […] includes the explanation of what I’m doing, and an addition of sounds. On the visual level, a dancer constantly goes up and down a staircase. This sequence is shown again as a video by re-filming the monitor and re-projecting it, re-filming it, and so on… until the desired abstract result is obtained.” [8] Martin undertook a second project at Vidéographe. Just like Métamorphoses, Sons intérieurs (1972) has its origins in a musical experiment. The video version of this composition can be performed by one or several persons by following the experimental score which scrolls by onscreen. This video seeks to “transcend […] the television medium” [9] and to destabilize the passive viewer by making him/her become aware that when one “listens/watches, one is also there.” [10]

Jean-Pierre Boyer is also interested in video as a means to renew the relation between sound and image. He worked independently, but nevertheless made use of the Vidéographe spaces and editing equipment to make some of his works. In L’Amertube (1973), Boyer continued the research with feedback initiated by Gille Chartier, and drew inspiration from, among others, the work of the composers Jean-Claude Risset and John R. Pierce. Afterwards, Boyer took the liberty of making a brief visit to Université Laval’s electronic music studio where the electroacoustic composer Marcelle Deschênes introduced him to the analog EMI synthesizer. He made Phonoptic (1973-1974) using sound recording tapes he brought back from Quebec City. He used the Boyétizeur, a video synthesizer he invented himself, to process the audio signal and create/transform the TV image. [11] In June, 1974, Boyer organized a bio-feedback event in the Vidéographe spaces. This project extended the experiments of the French electroacoustic composert Pierre Henry. In 1971, this composer recorded an album using the sound variations and improvisations of the electrical waves emitted by the brain. The idea that the composer can at once be “his own material and his own performer” [12] motivated Boyer to undertake a similar experiment. The adventure was conclusive and led to Vidéo-Cortex (1973-1974), a video in which the cerebral activity of participants taking part in an experimental television session is made visible and audible.

The current program does not venture beyond 1974, but that does not mean that video art was exhausted in Quebec in the mid-1970s. Quite to the contrary, Vidéographe (with its Vithèque platform) continues to promote free creation and the search for parallels between sound and image, as is made evident by L’Homme de Pékin (Claude Vivier, Daniel Dion et Philippe Poloni, 1982), The Polytechnic World (Rick Raxlen, 1984) et Ode 1:23:06 (Yvel Champagne, 1991). The Véhicule gallery also participated in these efforts by integrating video as part of its programming and by founding Vidéo véhicule in the fall of 1975. Unfortunately, I do not have enough space here to provide a more far reaching overview of the many possibilities that inhere in the relation between video art and experimental music. The works evoked here, open several exploratory paths for those who are interested in pursuing this topic further.

To consult the Electronic Quebec page

 

Notes:

[1] The videomaker and theorist Edward S. Small identified eight generic characteristics pertaining to experimental video: it is “ an acollaborative construction, marked by an economic independence that is not bound by industry restrictions. It is therefore a (3) personal work that takes shape spontaneously and freely in order to (4) usher in new visual poetries. The videomaker who creates an experimental video (5) questions his/her medium of choice and (6) with ever increasing insistence puts forth non-narrative strategies that erase (7) the voice and (8) time which thus allows for the emergence of new visual languages.” These characteristics overlap with those associated with experimental music: the advancement of new forms of writing, rejection of traditional notions of musical tempos, the foregrounding of the creative process, a marked interest for inter-media approaches, a reevaluation of the composer-audience relationship, a democratization of creation through the involvement of amateur musicians and the public, the innovative use of electronic means, spontaneity, etc. See among others: Edward S. Small, Direct Theory: Experimental Film/Video as Major Genre, Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press, 1994. 122 p. ; Michael Nyman, Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2002, 196 p.

[2] Collectif, « Le Vidéographe », Cinéma Québec, vol. 1, no 6, December, 1971, p. 4.

[3] Collectif, « Le Vidéographe », Cinéma Québec, vol. 2, no 9, special issue, 1973, p. 15.

[4] Raymond Gervais, description of a project titled “Musique improvisée au Québec”, February, 1973, Vidéographe, Montreal.

[5] The video recording Lumières, formes et sons (Lemieux, 1972) is unfortunately no longer available for distribution at Vidéographe.

[6] Micheline Guernon, description of a project for a “Premier vidéogramme d’animation érotique”, undated document, Vidéographe, Montreal.

[7] Richard Martin, letter to the Vidéographe, August 7, 1972, Vidéographe, Montreal.

[8] Raymond Gervais, “Musique et participation: une entrevue de Richard Martin”, Parachute, no 23, summer, 1981, p. 24.

[9] Richard Martin, interview with the author, May 7, 2013, Montréal.

[[10] Ibid. Gervais, “Musique et participation”, p. 21.

[11] Boyer states: “The Boyétizeur is an analog synth-video that allows one to create/transform the electromagnetic audio-video image’s point, line and frame. Any audio signal can be used for this creation-transformation of the televisual image. I used it extensively for the video recording Alpha, Analog, Le Chant magnétique, Phonoptic.” Jean-Pierre Boyer, email exchange with the author, May 7, 2013.

[12] See the notes that accompany the composer’s record: Pierre Henry, Mise en musique du corticalart de Roger Lafosse, 1971, Philips, 6521.022, LP.

Electronic Quebec: Sonic and Visual Explorations at Vidéographe, 1971-1974
By Eric Fillion

Québec électronique
 

**Translated from the French by Vithèque**

The founding myth of video art is the use of “prepared televisions” that were initiated by Nam June Paik during a 1963 exhibition titled Exposition of Music – Electronic Television. From its beginnings, this art current paralleled experimental music in its efforts to divert the television medium in favour of free and innovative creation. The commercialization of the Portapak camera in the mid 1960s as well as the subsequent setting up of an increasing number of production and dissemination centres contributed to the establishment of the video art form among certain European, American and Canadian avant-gardes. By way of its promotion of citizen expression and its encouragement of unhampered artistic practices Vidéographe played a catalyzing role in Quebec. The current program proposes to revisit the founding years of this organization through an overview that highlights the special relationship linking video art with so-called experimental music. [1]

Vidéographe was founded in 1971 and was at first an outgrowth of the NFB’s Challenge for Change project. Robert Forget, its founder, sought to facilitate access to new audiovisual technologies in order to “democratize the image.” [2] In April, 1973, Vidéographe received letters patent that confirmed its status as a not-for-profit organization. At the time its mandate was to “promote citizen expression by making electronic facilities—likely to contribute to this expression—available to all.” [3] He was active for a year and a half as a producer-disseminator and thus contributed to the emergence of a Quebec video scene that produced a mix of documentary, fiction and video art works.

Located a stone’s throw from the Théâtre St-Denis, Vidéographe housed a videotheque, a video screening space, an editing suite, a recording studio and a broad range of equipment available 24 hours a day. The work , Entrée en scène (1972) presents a visit of the organization’s venue guided by Forget.

The growing use of the Portapak as a research and social intervention tool was inevitably accompanied by an extensive production of documentary videos. It is therefore not surprising that directors appropriated video to portray the musical practices of a post révolution tranquille Quebec. Raymond Gervais and Michel Di Torre, the co-founders of the Atelier de musique expérimentale, made Ce soir on improvise (1974) to allow musicians, who they had encountered, to “freely express” themselves, but also to “jointly seek to understand, question, and define a communal/collective action; to free oneself and to play.” [4] For his part, the painter-videomaker Pierre Monat joined forces with Jazz libre du Québec and directed Y’a du dehors dedans (1973), a staggering work halfway between the documentary and art video genres. This video recording—with its soundtrack, unusual editing and use of feedback—bears witness to the fact that at Vidéographe formal research was not only possible but actually encouraged

The organization offered young artists the opportunity to work freely—and often for the first time—with sounds and images. This was Michel Lemieux’s case, who, at the age of thirteen, made experimental videos in which he focused on the perceptible traces of sound in urban space. [5] Vidéographe was open to all; one needed only to submit one’s proposal dossier to the selection committee, which allocated the budgets and ensured access to the equipment. Forget thus became the designated producer of many projects, among which Libidante (1972), an animated erotic video made by Micheline “Mousse” Guernon. She filmed her protagonists separately and used various techniques to modify the image and evoke the impossible carnal encounter between a man and a woman: “The masculine and feminine image sit by side, are superimposed or intertwined, but they never really touch each other.” [6] Guernon composed an ethereal electronic soundtrack that she joined with the image, but here too the symbiosis turns out to be impossible; it’s a music that accompanies the protagonists, but which never unites them. A similar observation can be drawn from Point au carré (1972), a surprising video by Jean-Pierre Poirier in which one hears a Moog synthesizer improvisation against the background of deconstructed landscapes—a voluntary dissociation that in no way questions the possibility of a true fusion between video art and experimental music.

During the month of August, 1972, Vidéographe received a proposal from an artist who wished to create an “audiovisual composition based on a musical experiment” by the composer Alvin Lucier [7]. The letter was signed by Richard Martin, a young videomaker and composer who wanted to highlight the special relationship between video art and new music. At first associated with the Université de Montréal, where he studied with Serge Garant (1969-1970), Martin then opted for exile in Connecticut (1970) and enrolled in courses given by Lucier. This is where he met John Cage, Terry Riley and Robert Ashley. Furthermore, he studied with Ashley and Pauline Oliveros during a stay in California (1971-1972) where he was also introduced to video production. Based on the piece I am Sitting in a Room (Lucier, 1969), Métamorphoses (1972) focuses on visual and aural transformations that unfold while a sequence is projected and filmed in loop form. Martin explains: “The soundtrack […] includes the explanation of what I’m doing, and an addition of sounds. On the visual level, a dancer constantly goes up and down a staircase. This sequence is shown again as a video by re-filming the monitor and re-projecting it, re-filming it, and so on… until the desired abstract result is obtained.” [8] Martin undertook a second project at Vidéographe. Just like Métamorphoses, Sons intérieurs (1972) has its origins in a musical experiment. The video version of this composition can be performed by one or several persons by following the experimental score which scrolls by onscreen. This video seeks to “transcend […] the television medium” [9] and to destabilize the passive viewer by making him/her become aware that when one “listens/watches, one is also there.” [10]

Jean-Pierre Boyer is also interested in video as a means to renew the relation between sound and image. He worked independently, but nevertheless made use of the Vidéographe spaces and editing equipment to make some of his works. In L’Amertube (1973), Boyer continued the research with feedback initiated by Gille Chartier, and drew inspiration from, among others, the work of the composers Jean-Claude Risset and John R. Pierce. Afterwards, Boyer took the liberty of making a brief visit to Université Laval’s electronic music studio where the electroacoustic composer Marcelle Deschênes introduced him to the analog EMI synthesizer. He made Phonoptic (1973-1974) using sound recording tapes he brought back from Quebec City. He used the Boyétizeur, a video synthesizer he invented himself, to process the audio signal and create/transform the TV image. [11] In June, 1974, Boyer organized a bio-feedback event in the Vidéographe spaces. This project extended the experiments of the French electroacoustic composert Pierre Henry. In 1971, this composer recorded an album using the sound variations and improvisations of the electrical waves emitted by the brain. The idea that the composer can at once be “his own material and his own performer” [12] motivated Boyer to undertake a similar experiment. The adventure was conclusive and led to Vidéo-Cortex (1973-1974), a video in which the cerebral activity of participants taking part in an experimental television session is made visible and audible.

The current program does not venture beyond 1974, but that does not mean that video art was exhausted in Quebec in the mid-1970s. Quite to the contrary, Vidéographe (with its Vithèque platform) continues to promote free creation and the search for parallels between sound and image, as is made evident by L’Homme de Pékin (Claude Vivier, Daniel Dion et Philippe Poloni, 1982), The Polytechnic World (Rick Raxlen, 1984) et Ode 1:23:06 (Yvel Champagne, 1991). The Véhicule gallery also participated in these efforts by integrating video as part of its programming and by founding Vidéo véhicule in the fall of 1975. Unfortunately, I do not have enough space here to provide a more far reaching overview of the many possibilities that inhere in the relation between video art and experimental music. The works evoked here, open several exploratory paths for those who are interested in pursuing this topic further.

To consult the Electronic Quebec page

 

Notes:

[1] The videomaker and theorist Edward S. Small identified eight generic characteristics pertaining to experimental video: it is “ an acollaborative construction, marked by an economic independence that is not bound by industry restrictions. It is therefore a (3) personal work that takes shape spontaneously and freely in order to (4) usher in new visual poetries. The videomaker who creates an experimental video (5) questions his/her medium of choice and (6) with ever increasing insistence puts forth non-narrative strategies that erase (7) the voice and (8) time which thus allows for the emergence of new visual languages.” These characteristics overlap with those associated with experimental music: the advancement of new forms of writing, rejection of traditional notions of musical tempos, the foregrounding of the creative process, a marked interest for inter-media approaches, a reevaluation of the composer-audience relationship, a democratization of creation through the involvement of amateur musicians and the public, the innovative use of electronic means, spontaneity, etc. See among others: Edward S. Small, Direct Theory: Experimental Film/Video as Major Genre, Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press, 1994. 122 p. ; Michael Nyman, Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2002, 196 p.

[2] Collectif, « Le Vidéographe », Cinéma Québec, vol. 1, no 6, December, 1971, p. 4.

[3] Collectif, « Le Vidéographe », Cinéma Québec, vol. 2, no 9, special issue, 1973, p. 15.

[4] Raymond Gervais, description of a project titled “Musique improvisée au Québec”, February, 1973, Vidéographe, Montreal.

[5] The video recording Lumières, formes et sons (Lemieux, 1972) is unfortunately no longer available for distribution at Vidéographe.

[6] Micheline Guernon, description of a project for a “Premier vidéogramme d’animation érotique”, undated document, Vidéographe, Montreal.

[7] Richard Martin, letter to the Vidéographe, August 7, 1972, Vidéographe, Montreal.

[8] Raymond Gervais, “Musique et participation: une entrevue de Richard Martin”, Parachute, no 23, summer, 1981, p. 24.

[9] Richard Martin, interview with the author, May 7, 2013, Montréal.

[[10] Ibid. Gervais, “Musique et participation”, p. 21.

[11] Boyer states: “The Boyétizeur is an analog synth-video that allows one to create/transform the electromagnetic audio-video image’s point, line and frame. Any audio signal can be used for this creation-transformation of the televisual image. I used it extensively for the video recording Alpha, Analog, Le Chant magnétique, Phonoptic.” Jean-Pierre Boyer, email exchange with the author, May 7, 2013.

[12] See the notes that accompany the composer’s record: Pierre Henry, Mise en musique du corticalart de Roger Lafosse, 1971, Philips, 6521.022, LP.