Installing Water in the Art Gallery and the Human Mind

François Quévillon is an artist from Montreal whose work engages directly with questions of human experience of the world, at a time when nature itself is in deep crisis, and when human perception is shaped by the intrusion of media and technology into many domains of life. He refuses to slot himself as someone who only celebrates nature or only mourns it. Recognizing that our movements bring us at times into galleries, at times into remote places, he produces installations and media pieces that can surprise, shock or delight, but that always hold the attention at the time of viewing and hearing, and linger in the viewer’s and spirit long after. He is well-known for his works that display ice and water in movement. In his video/audio work Defrost, for example, he uses three screens to link multiple perspectives on a single process—the melting of a block of ice—with the human capacity to shift the focus of attention.  The link here shows this work. 

Trained at the Université du Québec à Montréal , a participant in the Interstices Research-Creation Group, and active as an artist-in-residence, he took time recently for an interview with GlacierHub.

Defrost [installation] (Source: Quevillon)
Defrost [installation] (Source: F. Quévillon)

GH: Your work includes both video and audio. How do you see these two as working together?

FQ: I’m interested by the materiality and energy of both images and sounds, as well as what is generated by their interactions. Every project establishes a different type of association between them. The visuals display a reality that has been captured and transformed by a technological means, which can sometimes lead to total abstraction. In a similar manner, audio can be field recordings, sound synthesis or live amplification and processing. I combine them to create environments that engage the viewer’s body in space.


GH: Your work is presented in spaces of a variety of sizes and configurations–some wider and open, some narrower, some with screens on one wall and some with screens on several walls. Do you work with the managers of galleries and museums to design these spaces? What influence does the particular nature of the space have on the experience?

FQ: Since most of my works are installations and often integrate the viewer as an active component, space is an element that fully participates to define the experience. Sometimes a work is made for a space, and other times it’s adapted to that space. On occasion, I have reconfigured a work to the point of transforming into something else. I try to plan as much as I can with the venues and event organizers. I find site-specific works to be the most stimulating, since  they engage with their context and situation in a particularly deep manner.


Magnitude [tactile installation] (Source: F. QUevillon)
Magnitude [tactile installation] (Source: F. Quévillon)
GH: Water is a very immediate substance, something that people experience directly many times each day. Your work consists of recordings. How does the use of recordings influence the experience of your art?

FQ: Some of my works include matter as part of the system. For example, Les attracteurs étranges is a smoke screen altered by computer controlled ventilators. The use of live or recorded sounds, images or data allows me to manipulate temporality and the media themselves, to establish different connections between them and to observe phenomena with different perspectives. I find this practice  to be a good way of examining our interface-mediated experiences. It allows us to explore the ways that technology transforms our perception, interpretation and relation to the world.


GH: Are there any experiences in your early life that left you with a strong impression of water, snow and ice? 

FQ: Maybe at a subconscious level, living in Québec exposed me to these elements on a regular basis. Water, and its different states, is metaphorically and symbolically rich. Growing up at a time when environmental awareness was being put forward had an influence on the work that I do today. My childhood memories include acid rain, melting ice caps, oil spills, toxic leaks, drought , the loss of the ozone layer and other disasters caused by human activity.

Without being directly centered on climate change and these phenomena, Defrost evokes them while remaining open to other interpretations. The works that followed included computer vision systems so that the presence and movement of the audience influenced their unfolding. The public caused a block of ice to melt and then boil in États et intervalles, or to crack and reconfigure itself in Magnitudes. The audience had an impact but was unable to control these phenomena, or at least not precisely. Even though Waiting for Bárðarbunga, shown in this link , is focused on volcanic and geothermal activities, the anticipation of the subglacial stratovolcano’s eruption can symbolize different types of catastrophe that we apprehend, monitor and forecast while not knowing exactly how to intervene to prevent or stop them.


Magnitude [multimedia installation] (source: F. Quévillon)
Magnitude [multimedia installation] (source: F. Quévillon)
GH: Do you see your work as influenced by the history and culture of Québec? Does your work comment on the future of Québec, Canada and the world?

FQ: A location’s climate and geography are embedded in cultural identity and history, so I’m influenced by them but my work isn’t specific to my origins. For instance, in several of the installations I made in the early 2000s, Iceland’s geological activity and some of its environmental features were more present than those of Québec or Canada. It took a long time before I actually went to Iceland, in 2014 for an artist residency. Like the Idea of the North that is at the basis of both Francophone and Anglophone Canadian culture, or the myth of Thule in European culture, I try to convey both reality and imagination with my works, to probe the unknown and the uncertainty of our world’s future. Imaging systems, remote sensors, satellites, statistical models, data visualizations are some of the instruments that we use to understand imperceptible phenomena and to survey inaccessible and hostile environments. I comment on these technologies and on the changing nature of contemporary representations at the same time as I use them. In other words, the technologies that have impacted nature are not separable from the technologies that allow us to apprehend nature.

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