Interview: Christian Calon

Phil Hallett, SAN Diffusion, April 12, 2006

Christian Calon’s new project Atlas is a sound spatialisation project composed of five correlated pieces, with each piece having a duration of around 20 minutes. The first part of Atlas is the Sonic Arts Network-commissioned North. The piece was developed at SARC, Belfast, where Calon was artist in residence and the piece will be presented in concert at the Sonorities festival on Saturday 29 April.

Can you tell us about your new work Atlas and why you are here in the UK?

Atlas is a virtual memorial. It wishes to be a tribute as well as a work of memory. It is a tribute to the creative forces in man, his genius for probing the world, and harnessing the unknown through sound and music, with the help of musical instruments. In parallel the project wishes to be a witness to his relentless hate and fear of his fellow man, his neighbour, through the destruction, violence, pain he has inflicted in various and innumerable ways in order to quench his greed and quest for power and possession. Thus, the under-title, Atlas (of Infamy).

In the background of the project is an idea of cartography, of a vision of the world. The world, in general, represented the same way and centred around the Atlantic. I wished for a way to conceive and present an acousmatic work in a situation where the listener could put to use his hard learned but natural capacities of hearing sound in space and present him with a conception of space and spatialisation that is free from constraints inherited from the concert situation. Things like position in space, points of view, directionality, height, planes, volumes and movement (etc.), all questions that had to be re-examined in the light of a multiple perspective (or non-dominant perspective) concept. The idea of a non-isotropic listening space. Since Atlas will be composed out of five different “regions” (or sequences, or areas on the map), each having its own material and spatialisation mode, the idea came naturally to work in different environments and studios in order to benefit from their differences and own qualities which I hope will induce something in the works. In the discussion, it became clear that working here in the UK, at SARC, could help advance some of the ideas still at a theoretical stage and enable me to bring them to fruition.

What is your approach to audio-visual work in Atlas and your collaborative process? Is this work with image a new aspect of your work?

Things in general happen by necessity. At the early stages, the project was thought as a purely audio piece, in the form of an installation. But due to its nature, intent and thematic, it soon became apparent that the various natures of information to be delivered could and should not be carried out by sound only. The main reason for this is that I didn’t think this installation type project would benefit from having voices (spoken voices) as part of the sound content. In my experience, that would shift the whole thing in an undesirable perspective, that would in a way sabotage the acoustic experience I set out to propose. So the sound should, as much as possible, concentrate on one aspect: the sounds of musical instruments of the world. Thus it became natural to think (since we are in a cinematic approach) of some form of visual proposition, in parallel to the sound. A piece developing and delivering two levels of information, each with its content and constraints. So I did not set out to make an audio-visual work, but the essence of the project pushed me to seek for solutions (which would benefit the experience for the audience) and required some shift in the form, i.e. working with images and sounds.

Your recent release Radio Roadmovies was a collaboration with Chantal Dumas. Can you tell us about the project and how this collaboration came about?

After living for seven years in Europe (France and Germany) we went to Canada to do several projects. In Berlin both of us got involved more deeply in producing works for the radio, an activity which corresponded to both our interests with narrative forms. So going back to the North, we thought it would be a good idea to probe our knowledge of the Canadian entity and of this idea of North and a sense of belonging. So with the help of two commissions for radio works (one for Radio-Canada — an “audio art” piece— and one for Deutschland Radio — an “artistic documentary”) we took the road and trails in the summer of 99 in a minivan. What was to be a trip in space soon became a trip both in time and in topography. It soon became apparent that we were not going to make pieces that would sound like postcards of the places we’ve seen. We were not going to make use of words either. But how can you make heard a mountain, a bear, a landscape? And further questions like: does the recording of a soundscape really sound like reality?

So we came to think of the two pieces as mirrors of one another: The little man in the ear, is an action piece, a road movie in which the listener is always with the microphone and part of the action. Presence is always felt and heard; here a few words, clothes noise, the shaking of a microphone, footsteps, etc. The form goes fast from a sequence to another, the road is omnipresent, and from the south to the north, there is always the presence of man. Surface documents is a landscape size piece that can be perceived as abstract for the wide expanse of sound as if painted with very large brushes, but at the same time totally concrete in the sense that materials overfill the whole acoustic space. We worked with the microphone the same way one would do with the camera. Closing in on some tiny insect in a wheat field in the Prairies or shifting perspective and taking in large planes of sound or again creating dual perspectives. And a paradox we came to was that, probably largely due to the quality of the sounds and recordings, at times, one does not hear the “document” anymore but slips into the purely musical dimension of sound. Sound as a composed material. As a result, in both cases, the pieces do not have much to do with what are called soundscapes.

But how does the sound convey the experience we had of the places, the people, the landscape, the spirit of the land? In order to bring some of this back we realized that we were not making documentaries, but in both cases fictions that were so close to the original that the listener would not look at them like as remote postcards, but be in the action and in the sound. So what one hears is not what was there. On the other hand what one hears is exactly what we saw and heard.

What will be the relationship between sound, spatialisation and image in the Atlas installation?

Being at heart a phenomenologist, I would not be able to say so early what the relations between the elements will be. That is for the audience to experience and define. What can be described are the elements coming into play, the setting of the piece. This work is about perspective. The elements are all considered spatially; images, sounds and … audience. Just like the way things happen around us in the world, never at any moment can one say: I am at the centre of what is happening. There is no centre but a cohabitation of local spaces, visual areas, passages; the centre of the structural space in which the installation takes place is not necessarily the centre of the activity or the best place to follow it. No predominant direction, not one but several “volumes” to enter and inhabit. The piece is not at all unlimited in its scope and perspectives but wishes to offer just another way of looking at things, of listening to something that remains a musical discourse. Yes there are images projected on several surfaces, but these too are a non-directional. As I said earlier, since the piece is about different perspectives, various facilities encourage this “difference” simply by their layout, equipment and spaces.

Can you tell us a little about your life in Canada? Do you travel much within the country? Can you touch on how it influences your work?

Canada is a large country and cities or centres are far apart. It is also a place with a non-uniform distribution of aesthetics and interest, and from the west to the east artists and centres in the same field have very different perspectives. Of course, in digital based arts, the conditions and questions related to technology are quite equivalent, but remain the aesthetical specifics. So historically, and this is still true today, acousmatic practice is a thing that grows east, closer to Montréal. In such a country, yes, you need to travel in order to grasp the various ways art can be thought and practiced. But of course, the sense of space, the openness, a certain distance from dense and strong centres as in Europe or the USA has turned Canada into a very favourable soil, where ideas have a certain freedom to generate and develop without the pressure to accept certain dominant rules edicted somewhere else. This is also why there is to be found a different nature/culture balance.

Do you feel part of a community of artists there? Is there much mutual support between different groups?

Definitely, yes. And at the same time the best position for an artist is to find his own balance between the proximity to centres and their collaborative possibilities and a healthy distance from their pressures. This for the sake of his own personal research. This in order to have the freedom to try and redefine forms and contexts of successive projects and certainly so when these are eventually, slightly off of the main road. Artistic activity and groups of course are largely dependent on financial institutions that require them to define their fields of activity. So groups may be perceived from the outside as monolithic entities within a very defined field of practice. But in general, there is a strong tendency nowadays for groups to collaborate and exchange (but this is always the push of some individual of course) in order to open to newer forms and projects and shifting interest on the part of artists. Groups and centres open up to various forms and aesthetical differences are put aside in order to encourage and achieve the work of creation.

But due to its nature, intent and thematic, it soon became apparent that the various natures of information to be delivered could and should not be carried out by sound only.